By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
The daughter of Julianna Johnson and Episcopal bishop John Johns, Julia Johns was in her early 30s when she moved to Alexandria in 1854 – seven years before the start of the American Civil War.
Born in 1822 in Frederick, Maryland, Johns had moved with her family to Baltimore, Richmond and Williamsburg, where John Johns had served as president of The College of William & Mary, before landing in Alexandria.
Johns’ arrival changed Alexandria. The adept young woman would come to shape the way the city delivers health care.
In an age when few women were looked upon as public health leaders, Johns was motivated to action after a sailor arrived at Alexandria’s port with typhoid fever. Despite the earlier presence of more than 30 temporary hospitals operated by the Union Army in the city during the Civil War, Alexandria in the early 1870s had no central location to treat the ill or quarantine patients. Fears of a potential typhoid epidemic prompted Johns to assemble an all-female board of trustees who took it upon themselves to create “a hospital for the sick.”
In December 1872, the Commonwealth of Virginia granted a charter to the Alexandria Infirmary and Johns and her team promptly leased a town house at the southwest corner of Duke and South Fairfax streets. In early 1873, the Alexandria Infirmary opened its doors to patients.
The infirmary initially engaged three doctors, one nurse and a few support staff. The first surgery at the facility – the amputation of a railroad employee’s crushed leg – was performed on Christmas, 1882.
Inviting her female board members, volunteers and supporters to her home for meetings, prayer and teas on the lawn became a method of Johns’ for retaining the infirmary’s guidance by women.
During the next three decades, it became obvious that Johns had opened up more than a “ hospital for the sick.” The infirmary established the first nursing school in Northern Virginia in 1894. A dispensary opened in 1900 and began the first outpatient treatment in the Commonwealth. In 1902, the Alexandria Infirmary changed its name to the Alexandria Hospital, which in 1960 gained national fame for establishing the first emergency department in the United States to provide full-time ER doctors. Following several location changes, it is today part of the INOVA Health System.
Johns died in Alexandria in 1883 and is buried near her father at the Virginia Theological Seminary, in the vicinity of today’s hospital. A plaque by her grave reads in part, “A Visionary Community Pioneer, Extraordinary Leader of Women and Compassionate Humanitarian.” One of her obituaries stated, “…to her noble efforts, even while sick and suffering, Alexandria owes the existence of the Infirmary, and many of the poor of our city speak her name with tender blessings.”
Although the original Alexandria Infirmary site in Old Town was demolished in 1953 – today a small parking lot covers the location – Johns’ legacy is recognizable 138 years after her death in the work being done by women in the city’s health care system today.
Inova Alexandria Hospital’s Board of Lady Managers is a humanitarian organization founded by women of faith in 1872 to serve unmet medical needs in Alexandria. It continues that legacy today with fundraising dedicated to supporting Inova Alexandria Hospital in meeting the health needs of the community. The hospital is currently led by its third female president, Dr. Rina Bansal. The Twig Junior Auxiliary is an organization of women dedicated to providing financial aid, volunteer service and support to the Hospital. Johns’ photograph is displayed in the Inova Alexandria Hospital lobby.
Her legacy also endures in the courageous work of today’s women medical and health innovators who, like Julia Johns, are dedicated to caring for Alexandrians every day. Whether typhoid fever or COVID-19, Alexandria’s women continue to make an impact.
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that is highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebratesWomen@gmail.com.