The Birth of Midwifery in America

Mary Breckinridge was born into a family of public service. Her father was a Congressman from Arkansas and an Ambassador to Russia. She was educated at private schools before returning to her home in Arkansas. When her husband died after only two years of marriage, she decided to become a nurse. She married again and became a teacher. When both of her children died, she decided to devote her life to improving the lives of children.

Mary left her second husband at the end of World War I. She was posted as a Red Cross nurse to help restore France with medical assistance for children, new mothers, and mothers-to-be. As she worked to restore France’s medical support, she couldn’t help but think of the poor medical conditions in rural America which were unaffected by the war. She became convinced of the need for trained midwives.

When her service with the Red Cross concluded, Mary became trained in public health nursing and midwifery. She then moved to a remote area of Kentucky and created the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS).

The FNS was supported by Mary’s own personal funds. Nurse midwives would travel by horseback to support women giving birth as well as young children. The coverage area was 700 square miles. It didn’t take long for maternal and infant mortality rates to go from the highest in the nation to below average.

In its first 50 years of existence, FNS delivered 17,053 babies with only 50 maternal deaths. The success of the FNS spread to other parts of the country. The American Association of Nurse-Midwives was created by the staff of the FNS. Schools to train nurse-midwives were also created to extend the availability of care in other rural areas.

Mary Breckinridge is a good example of how a single person with a vision and dedication can become the catalyst for change. Hidden heroes often work outside of the established systems. In Mary’s case, she saw medical neglect that was well known by the medical establishment and worked to address the need.

It takes a special form of dedication and resolve to challenge what has been in place for ages.

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            “Birth is not only about making babies. Birth is about making mothers.”– Barbara Katz Rothman (Author)

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