Mary Carson Breckinridge
February 17, 1881|
May 16, 1965 (aged 84)|
|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, US Minister to Russia Clifton Rodes Breckinridge and a granddaughter of Vice President John C. Breckinridge. She was educated by private tutors in Washington, D.C., Switzerland and in St. Petersburg, Russia. She obtained a degree from St Lukes Hospital New York in Nursing in 1910 and advanced Midwife Training at a Hospital in London, England.
Breckinridge's mother disapproved of her cousin Sophonisba Breckinridge's going to college and starting a career. She helped to ensure that 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.
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 did not survive. Two years later, their beloved four-year-old son, Clifford Breckinridge ("Breckie") Thompson, died of appendicitis. Breckinridge's husband was unfaithful; they were divorced in 1920 and Breckinridge resumed the use of her maiden name
Breckinridge turned to nursing to overcome the travails of her children's deaths and her divorce, joining the American Committee for Devastated France. It was during this time that she served as volunteer director of Child Hygiene and District Nursing. While in Europe she met French and British nurse-midwives and realized that people with similar training could meet the health care needs of rural America's mothers and babies. Breckinridge also recognized that the organizational structure of decentralized outposts in France could be mimicked in other rural areas. She would implement these ideas in her later work with the Frontier Nursing Service. 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 U.S. in 1925 and on May 28 of that year founded the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, which soon became the Frontier Nursing Service. She was joined by two midwives she met in London, Edna Rockstroh (1899-1982) and Freda Caffin. Mary Breckinridge, her father Colonel Breckinridge (took care of the horses), nurses Edna, Freda set up the first nurses clinic and lived together in Hyden in 1925. They delivered the first baby in September 1925. The nurses traveled by horseback to deliver babies day and night, in all weather. There are actual recordings of Edna's memories of the difficulties frontier nursing and the leadership of Mary Breckinridge online at Kentuckyoralhistory.org.
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.
In 1998, she was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 77¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.
- Raines, Kimberly (1976). "The Frontier Nursing Service: A Historical Perspective". The Journal of Community Health Nursing. 13 (2): 125.
- Campbell, Anne G. (Summer 1984). "Mary Breckinridge and the American Committee for Devastated France: The Foundations of the Frontier Nursing Service". The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. 82 (3): 263.
- John E. Kleber, ed. (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. p. 119. ISBN 9780813117720.