Profile of a Famous Nurse: Mary Breckinridge

Nurse was a pioneer in midwifery in the U.S.

Sometimes a life filled with tragedy takes a person to the depths of depression from which she never recovers. There are also times when someone rises from personal loss and is inspired to make a difference by helping others.

Mary Breckinridge falls into the latter category. Born into a prominent Memphis family in 1881, she was the daughter of U.S. Rep. Clifton Breckinridge. She was taught by private tutors in Washington, D.C., and in Russia after her father was appointed by President Grover Cleveland as U.S. ambassador to that country.

In 1904, Breckinridge married attorney Henry Ruffner, who died two years later. She enrolled in a nursing class at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City and earned her degree in 1910.

She remarried in 1912 and gave birth to two children, one of whom died hours after she was born. Her second child, Clifford Breckinridge Thompson, died of appendicitis when he was only 4. In 1920, she divorced Richard Ryan Thompson, who had been unfaithful to her.

Her personal life in tatters, Breckinridge turned to community service. She joined the American Committee for Devastated France and met nurse midwives who inspired her to care for mothers and babies. Since there was no midwifery training in the United States at the time, she moved to England to become certified in that field.

In 1925, she came back to her native country and founded the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, which soon became the Frontier Nursing Service. The FNS, which served much of southeastern Kentucky, would become a model for rural health care delivery.

Through her connections and speaking appearances, Breckinridge raised millions of dollars to fund the FNS. The service was first staffed by nurse-midwives trained in England who traveled on horses and on foot to care for patients, who often paid in goods. Offering prenatal and childbirth care, as well as family care, the FNS helped reduce maternal-mortality and infant-mortality rates in Kentucky.

Because the cost of training American nurse-midwives in England was so high, Breckinridge established the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing in 1939. It was the first school in the nation to graduate certified midwives.

Breckinridge led the Frontier Nursing Service until her death in 1965. In 40 years of her stewardship, the FSA treated more than 50,000 people and administered more than 250,000 inoculations. Today, the Frontier Nursing Service operates Mary Breckinridge Hospital in Wendover, Ken., as well as health clinics, a home health agency and a school of midwifery.

Breckinridge, who is considered a pioneer of midwifery, rural health care delivery, and family and community nursing, was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame in 1982.