Mary Carson Breckinridge

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Mary Breckinridge
Mary Breckinridge.jpg
BornFebruary 17, 1881
DiedMay 16, 1965(1965-05-16) (aged 84)
Known forFounding the Frontier Nursing Service
Medical career
ProfessionNurse midwife

Mary Carson Breckinridge (February 17, 1881 – May 16, 1965) was an American nurse midwife and the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service.

Family and early life[edit]

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.

In 1894, Breckinridge and her family moved to Russia when President Grover Cleveland appointed her father to serve as the U.S. minister to that country. They returned to the United States in 1897.

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.

As a young widow, 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 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.[1] 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 travelled to the Hebrides, Scotland, in 1924 to look at models of health service in remote rural areas.[2] 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.[3] 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 of frontier nursing and the leadership of Mary Breckinridge online at She worked closely with Ann MacKinnon in setting up the Kentucky State Association of Midwives in 1930.[4]

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.

She continued to lead the Frontier Nursing Service until her death on May 16, 1965, at Wendover.[5]


In 1995, Mary Breckinridge was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[6]

In 1998, she was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 77¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.

In 2010, an equestrian statue was dedicated to Mary Breckenridge in Hyden, Kentucky.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Raines, Kimberly (1976). "The Frontier Nursing Service: A Historical Perspective". The Journal of Community Health Nursing. 13 (2): 125.
  2. ^ Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre (2013). "From Farm Cart to Air Ambulance: Papers from a Conference 100 Years of Healthcare in Skye and Lochalsh" (PDF). Retrieved 20 October 2018.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Norman, Macdonald (2014). The great book of Skye : from the island to the world : people and place on a Scottish island. Maclean, Cailean. Portree. ISBN 978-0952868798. OCLC 897503159.
  5. ^ John E. Kleber, ed. (1992). The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky. p. 119. ISBN 9780813117720.
  6. ^ National Women's Hall of Fame, Mary Breckinridge

External links[edit]