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Retired U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson ’67 was a registered nurse before entering public office, thanks in part to her time at TCU. While nursing and politics are an unusual confluence when it comes to career, both are about service and Johnson believes her degree served her well in each.

“Nurses have to have a broad view of those they’re responsible for, like children, teens, working people, seniors,” she said of the similarities. “You have to be empathetic, respectful and detail-oriented.”

As the first registered nurse elected to Congress, Johnson’s initial career path started in 1955, when she received her nursing certificate from St. Mary’s College in Indiana. It was one of the few colleges that a Black woman could attend.

“I’d wanted to be a doctor, but my counselor told me nursing was the best option. You would thankfully not hear those words these days,” Johnson recalled of her education and early career. “I was so excited when I passed the board in three years.”

Eddie Bernice Johnson on banner
Eddie Bernice Johnson is featured on the current Lead On street banners.

The Waco native returned to Texas to work at the Dallas Veterans Administration Hospital. Wanting to advance professionally in medicine, she would need to complete her nursing degree. Married and with a son, it would be difficult. TCU, now desegregated, made that doable, so she took a leave from her job and moved to Fort Worth for a year to enroll in what was then Harris School for Nursing.  

“The college was closer to home, accredited and let me really focus on my degree,” she said. “It was a rewarding experience.”

While at TCU, she studied and researched psychiatric nursing and public health, which helped her when she served as chief psychiatric nurse at Dallas Veterans Affairs from 1956 to 1972.

As a nurse, Johnson frequently volunteered to give polio vaccines and conduct glaucoma screenings in throughout southern Dallas, where in the late 1960s, it was a time of racial tension.

“When I volunteered, I might be the only Black person, and some people objected,” she recalled. “But I continued because I grew up in a family active in the church and community, so it was important to me.”

That sense of activism led her toward politics as she went door to door as part of a grassroots effort to create more representation for Blacks in public office. Other crusades followed, and in 1972 she left the hospital to run for the Texas House of Representatives and was the first Black woman elected to public office from Dallas. Many “firsts” followed, including the first woman to lead a major Texas House committee, the Labor Committee.

Still, being Black and a woman wasn’t easy in public office.

“I had so much to do. In those early days, there was open racism, but I put up with it and focused on the needs of the people in my district,” she said.

Johnson introduced the National Nurse Act of 2011, which would elevate the importance of the Chief Nurse Officer of the United States Public Health Service and appoint a National Nurse to work with the Surgeon General to promote wellness and health literacy.

Although her congressional committees did not have a direct jurisdiction over health care or nursing profession, Johnson served on many congressional health care task forces and, because of her leadership position, helped her congressional colleagues understand the Affordable Care Act and lack of follow up associated with treating primary care patients in emergency departments.

On Nov. 2, 2022, she was presented with the Lois Capps Policy Luminary Award. This award recognized leadership in advancing health care and the nursing profession at the federal level. She was recognized for being a champion of nursing, including introducing resolutions recognizing National Nurses Week, supporting Title VIII Nursing Workforce Development Programs and being one of the original supporters of the Future Advancement of Academic Nursing Act.

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