A Trailblazer for Women in the Navy


Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee served in the United States Navy for fourteen years, eleven of them as Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps (1911-1922). Her achievements with the U.S. Navy earned her the prestigious Navy Cross, becoming the first woman to earn the honor.

Lenah H. Sutcliffe was born in Chatham, New Brunswick, Canada, on May 18, 1874. She married Lieutenant Colonel John Henley Higbee, United States Marine Corps, in 1899 and attended the New York Postgraduate Hospital that same year.

After completing training in New York, Higbee entered private practice. Higbee’s husband passed away in April 1908, and later that year, she completed a post-graduate course at Fordham Hospital.

In October 1908, Higbee joined the newly established Navy Nurse Corps as one of the group’s first twenty members. Known as “The Sacred Twenty,” these women were the first to formally serve as members of the Navy. These nurses – unlike those who serve today – held no military rank and were resented by some of their male counterparts in the Navy.

Less than a year later, she was promoted to chief nurse at Norfolk Naval Hospital. In January 1911, Higbee was named superintendent and second commandant of the Navy Nurse Corps. While in this position, she led the Navy Nurse Corps during World War I as well as the Spanish influenza epidemic.

On Nov. 11, 1920, Chief Nurse Higbee was awarded the Navy Cross for “distinguished service in the line of her profession and unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty as superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps.”

On Nov. 23, 1922, Higbee retired from the Navy.

On Jan. 10, 1941, Higbee died in Winter Park, Florida and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, buried alongside her husband.

In 1945, the Navy commissioned USS Higbee (DD 806), a Gearing-class destroyer named in honor of the legendary Navy nurse. DD 806 was the first U.S. Navy warship to bear the name of one of its female members.