James Robert Gladden was born on October 29, 1911, in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was the son of James Albert and Luaco Gladden and graduated from the Long Island University Class in 1936 where he played varsity basketball and was captain of the varsity tennis team.

After attending Long Island University, he attended Meharry Medical College. He received his M.D. degree magna cum laude and earned the Andrew Nelson Award for the highest four-year grade point average. In 1943, due to the efforts of Dr. Julius Neviaser, Freedmen's Hospital, affiliated with Howard University, became the only institution in the country where African Americans could routinely obtain approved training. The program provided orthopaedic experience for general surgical residents who rotated through the service, but was primarily designed for the training of orthopaedic residents. Dr. J. Robert Gladden became the first full time orthopaedic resident at Howard University.

Dr. Gladden continued to pioneer in the specialty and in 1949 became the first African American certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery and the first of his race elected to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. In 1950 Dr. J. Robert Gladden was appointed clinical assistant professor and chief of the Division of Orthopaedics. A number of men received all or part of their training in the program during the next decade.

Dr. Gladden became the first African-American to be elected a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1951, and in 1956; he became the first non-white physician to perform a major surgery at King George's Hospital in Hamilton, Bermuda. In 1959, he was honored with the Tristram Walker Metcalfe award by Long Island University for his dedicated service to society.
During his life he was chief of orthopedic surgery at the Howard University School of Medicine and "Freedmen's" Hospital and one of three chiefs of orthopedic surgery at District General Hospital. Aside from Howard he lectured at George Washington Medical School and was affiliated with numerous hospitals in the greater Washington area. He was chairman of the Orthopedic Section of the National Medical Association, held numerous other posts of leadership in his profession and contributed frequently to professional journals.

Dr. Gladden spent his leisure time fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and often in the Bahamas for white and blue marlin. He died on December 8, 1969 at the age of 58.