Mary Carson Breckinridge
|Born||February 17, 1881
|Died||May 16, 1965
|Known for||Founding the Frontier Nursing Service|
Family and early Life
Born in Memphis, Tennessee into a prominent family, Breckinridge was a daughter of Arkansas Congressman Clifton Rodes Breckinridge and a granddaughter of John C. Breckinridge. She was educated by private tutors in Washington, DC and in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Breckinridge’s mother disapproved of her cousin Sophonisba Breckinridge’s going to college and starting a career. She helped ensure her daughter followed a more traditional path. Breckinridge was married in 1904 to a lawyer, Henry Ruffner Morrison, of Hot Springs, Arkansas. He died only two years later; the couple had no children. Following his death, Breckinridge entered a nursing class at New York City’s St. Luke’s Hospital. She remained there three years, taking a degree in nursing in 1910 before returning to the South. In 1912 she married Richard Ryan Thompson, a Kentucky native who was serving as the president of Crescent College and Conservatory in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The couple had two children. Their daughter, Polly, was born prematurely in 1916 and died when only six hours old. Two years later, their beloved four-year-old boy, Clifford Breckinridge (“Breckie”) Thompson, died suddenly of appendicitis. Breckinridge's husband was unfaithful; they were divorced in 1920 and Breckinridge resumed the use of her birth name.
Breckinridge turned to nursing to overcome the travails of her children’s deaths and her divorce, joining the American Committee for Devastated France. While in Europe she met French and British nurse-midwives and realized that people with their training could meet the healthcare needs of rural America’s mothers and babies. A deeply religious woman, Breckinridge considered this path to be her life’s calling.
Since no midwifery course was then offered in the United States Breckinridge returned to England to receive the training she needed at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies. She was then certified by the Central Midwives Board. She returned to the United States in 1925 and on May 28 of that year founded the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, which soon became the Frontier Nursing Service.
Breckinridge had a large log house, called the Big House, built in Wendover, Kentucky to serve as her home and the Frontier Nursing Service headquarters. In 1939 she started her own midwifery school. There, Breckinridge conducted Sunday afternoon services using the Episcopal prayer book. In 1952 she completed her memoir "Wide Neighborhoods" which is still available from the University of Kentucky Press.