A Dedicated Woman – Mary Breckinridge

Ann H Gabhart Ann's Posts, One Writer's Journal 6 Comments

Photo courtesy of the Frontier Nursing University Archives

“Where the land is rough and steep, nature is not easily conquered even after wild beasts and wilder men have been subdued. …a dogged determination to survive keeps a mountaineer’s body lean and his mind alert. His dwelling place in awesome regions tends to give him dignity of manner …accentuated by his sparse use of words.” (Mary Breckinridge describing the mountaineer characteristics)

Mary Breckinridge, the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service in the Appalachian Mountains, was a remarkable woman. After the loss of her two children, she decided to devote her life to the care of children. In 1918, she joined the American Committee for Devastated France to help the French people who were in desperate need after World War I. While there she worked with midwives and nurse midwives and came to the conclusion that nurse-midwifery services could be the answer to many of the health needs in her own country. While the lives of women and children had seen improvement in America’s cities, the mothers and children in remote rural areas still had little access to proper medical care.

Once back to America she began seeking a place to begin her nurse midwifery service. Perhaps because she was a Kentuckian, she decided on Leslie County in the heart of the Kentucky Appalachian Mountains. She returned to England to go to midwifery school. She had already trained to be a nurse. Then in 1925, with nurse midwives recruited in England, she helped establish the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, the first organization in America to use nurses trained as midwives under the direction of a single medical doctor. Three years later the name was changed to the Frontier Nursing Service which she ran from her mountain home, Wendover, until her death in 1965.

Although she had grown up in cities and was from a prestigious family in Kentucky, Mary Breckinridge loved the mountains and the mountain people. She respected them and their way of life. She instructed her nurse midwives to avoid controversy by not talking religion, politics or moonshine. The nurse midwives were there to help keep the people healthy, not to judge or try to change the way they lived. Breckinridge loved children and the mountain children flocked to her whenever she was out among them. Early on, she started having Christmas parties for the children and this became a popular tradition through the years.

Mary Breckinridge is a beautiful example of what one determined person can do if only one takes that first step down the path to whatever dream one might have. She made a difference in many, many lives as evidenced by this statistic. In The Frontier Nursing Service’s first 50 years, the nurse midwives delivered 17,053 babies with only 11 maternal deaths. This has to be even more amazing when you consider that nearly all of those deliveries were in the mothers’ homes with few if any modern conveniences.

As always, thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed peeking back at the some of the research I did for These Healing Hills. Check back Sunday to find out about Saddlebags and Horses.





Comments 6

  1. Paula

    I loved reading this post and the behind the scenes research. Loved your book These Healing Hills. ( I would add” of home” ) blessings!

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      Ann H Gabhart

      She was an amazing woman, Lucy. She went through some hard times. She even broke her back falling off a horse, but she recovered and still rode horses. She loved animals and people.

  2. Karen L Chaudoin

    I took note of the exceptional and envious to me log cabin home/structure in your post. Is this now a museum of Ms. Breckenridge’s home?

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