She is known for introducing nurse-midwifery to the United States, the skills that reduced the highest maternal mortality rate in the nation to below average. While she was well respected and educated for her time, Mary Breckenridge also suffered great tragedy in her life. After the death of her husband in 1906 and the deaths of her children in 1916 and 1918, she forsook marriage and motherhood and devoted her life to healing women and children in rural America.
A privileged beginning
Mary Breckinridge was born in 1881 to an influential, aristocratic Kentucky family. She enjoyed a privileged childhood and education in the U.S. and Europe. Her father was the U.S. ambassador to Czar Nicholas II of Russia from 1894 to 1897, as well as cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln. She became a registered nurse in 1910, at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, four years after the death of her first husband. While working in France during World War I, she was exposed to new healthcare ideas.
Establishing a frontier of nurse service
To cope with her grief after losing her children, Mary Breckenridge dedicated her life to the protection and care of Kentucky’s women and children. During this time, many women in rural areas of the United States had no access to health care. Most women gave birth to their children at home, with only the help of family members or neighbors, due to impassable roads for doctors to reach patients. For every 100,000 live births, over 800 resulted in maternal death, the highest mortality rates of anywhere in the United States.
Breckenridge understood that children’s healthcare should begin in the prenatal period, with a focus on birth and a child’s first years. She returned to London to become a certified nurse-midwife. While there she also visited Scotland to observe the work of a community midwifery system serving poor, rural areas. This decentralized structure served as a model for Breckenridge’s vision.
Along with a team of nurses on horseback, Breckinridge founded the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in 1925. As she was born to an aristocratic family, she was able to user her social and political contacts to raise more than $6 million for the program. Through FNS, nurse-midwives trained in New York and came back to Kentucky to serve women throughout their pregnancies.
News of her success quickly spread across the nation and soon, knowledge garnered from the FNS was throughout the United States to help women and children with limited access to affordable health care, subsequently revitalizing women’s health care. Today, FNS remains a strong community resource for an area that still struggles to meet the needs of families living in poverty.