Mary Carson Breckinridge
Inspired by British Nurse-Midwives, Mary Breckinridge created a program that is studied today as a model of rural health and social service delivery.
The daughter of a U.S. congressman and granddaughter of a U.S. Vice President, Breckinridge’s early life could be considered privileged and she was educated in the U.S. and Europe. Sadly her adult life was marred with tragedy as she was widowed at the age of 26 after only two years of marriage.
Earning her nursing degree after the death of her husband, she remarried a few years later. Her first child was born prematurely and did not survive. Her second child died before reaching the age of five. The couple divorced and she devoted her life to her nursing career and improving the health of women and children.
Volunteering in France during World War I she worked alongside nurse-midwives and knew that the people of rural Kentucky were in great need of these kinds of services. Traveling the state by horseback she learned of the common practices of child birth at the time and determined that a lack of prenatal care was one of the causes of the area’s high maternal mortality rates.
Returning to London she became a certified mid-wife and traveled to Scotland to observe a community midwifery system serving poor, rural areas. Using their decentralized structure as a model she founded the Frontier Nursing Service to provide quality pre-natal and childbirth care in patient’s homes. Using certified nurse-midwives that traveled on horseback she was able to cover an area of about 700 square miles in southern Kentucky. Clients were able to pay the low fees in services or goods and no client was ever turned away.
In 1939 she founded the Frontier Graduate School of Midwifery which is still in operation, changing its name in 2011 to the Frontier Nursing University.
In 1982 she was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to rural health delivery, community and family nursing and to the nursing profession in women’s health.
Written by Angela Goad