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.