Josephine Burton Bradham 1st RN in NC and US

Reprinted with permission from the American Association for the History of Bulletin Fall 2012 page 12-13.

The first Registered Nurse in the United States: Josephine (Burton) Bradham
            For over a hundred years the story and even the name of the first Registered Nurse in the United States has been inaccurately reported and shrouded in mystery. Nurse Mary Rose Batterham went to her grave in 1927, 24 years after she registered her nursing credentials with the Buncombe County Clerk of Court, mistakenly believing and widely honored as the first RN in the United States.  Meanwhile Josephine (Burton) Bradham, the nation’s first registered nurse, probably never knew she deserved that accolade.
             On March 3, 1903, the North Carolina State Nurse Association (NCSNA) became the first nursing organization to successfully lobby their state legislature to pass a law addressing nurse registration in the United States.    The law allowed nurses to place their names in a county registry of trained nurses by appearing before the Clerk of Court in the county in which they wished to practice and presenting their diploma from a reputable training school.  The Clerk of Court then issued the nurse a Certificate of Registration and entered her name in the Nurses Registry kept in each county courthouse.  The NCSNA needed time after the law passed to create, print and distribute registration documents to the Clerks of Court in each of North Carolina’s ninety nine counties. It was understood that registration would begin on June 5th, 1903.
            Members of the NCSNA agreed that Nurse Batterham , in recognition of her work on behalf of the NCSNA and nurses across the state, should become the first registered nurse in North Carolina and therefore in the United States. The Clerk of Court in Batterham’s home county of Buncombe opened his office an hour early on June 5th, 1903 to ensure her place in history. Batterham was honored the rest of her life in print, including in the American Journal of Nursing, in professional and civic meetings, and in her 1927 eulogy, as the first RN in the US.
             A decade later, in 1938, Bessie Chapman, RN, Secretary of the North Carolina Board of Nurse Examiners wrote to each Clerk of Court in North Carolina asking for a list of nurses who had registered in their county since 1903. At that time there was no centralized database with this information.   On July, 25, 1938, Chapman must have been greatly surprised to receive a letter from Mr. L.E. Lancaster, Clerk of Court for Craven County. He wrote that Josephine Burton appeared before the Craven County Clerk of Court with a diploma from the Philadelphia Hospital and was registered on June 4th, 1903. This was, of course, one day before Nurse Batterham registered in Buncombe County.
          Chapman was not familiar with the name or the career of Josephine Burton.
She queried older nurses in the NCSNA and none of them had heard of Burton either. In an effort to clear up this mystery, Chapman then wrote to Miss Loretta Johnson, Director of Nursing at Burton’s alma mater, Philadelphia General Hospital. Chapman asked Johnson for any information in the Philadelphia Hospital records about Burton.  Johnson quickly replied  “We have heard nothing from Mrs. Burton since the date she left the hospital”. Philadelphia General Hospital archives revealed that Burton gave her home address as New Bern (Craven County), North Carolina and her nearest relative as her brother Dr. C.D. Bradham of the same town. Since there were no employment records, census data or even death certificate related to Josephine Burton in Craven County, the trail to find out more about her grew cold and the mystery surrounding the first RN in the US remained.
               Recent archival research has revealed the first nurse in the United States, Josephine Bradham Burton Bradham was born in 1875 in the small town of Chinquapin in Duplin County, NC. She was the daughter of George Washington and Julia Sheffield Bradham.  On July 3, 1894, at age 19, she married Joel Burton also of Duplin County. Four and a half years later, Mrs. Burton entered nurses training at Philadelphia General Hospital on March 1, 1899 and graduated on April 1, 1902. While Burton was in nursing school in Philadelphia, her brother, Caleb D. Bradham, started a pharmacy in New Bern, (Craven County) NC where he invented Pepsi Cola. It is likely that after graduation, Burton, still married but soon to be divorced from her husband, moved to New Bern to live near her brother. As a recent graduate of one of the country’s finest nursing schools, Burton must have read about the nurse practice act being debated in the North Carolina legislature. After the act passed, Burton presented her diploma to the local Clerk of Court’s office and became the first Registered Nurse in North Carolina and the nation. There is no evidence that Burton, her brother Mr. Bradham, the Clerk of Court or anyone else was aware of Burton’s new status.
               Burton was divorced by 1910 and used her maiden name until her death from complications after surgery in New York City in 1917. She is buried in the family plot in New Bern under the name Josephine Bradham. There is no evidence that Josephine Burton Bradham ever practiced nursing or was active in any nursing organizations. Although more information about Bradham may be uncovered, we currently know several things about her. First, it was rare in the late 1800s for a young women from rural North Carolina to leave her family and live in another part of the country, yet she had the gumption to go to Philadelphia to pursue her career goal. She was bright, dedicated and hard working enough to graduate from one of the best nursing schools in the country. She was savvy enough to keep up with current events and register herself at the Clerk of Courts office in accordance with the provisions of the new NC Nurse Practice Act.   Josephine Bradham Burton Bradham can now occupy her rightful place in history as the first registered nurse in the United States.