Mary Breckinridge, a daughter of a prominent Kentucky family that included John C. Breckinridge, James Buchanan’s vice president, suffered the loss of both her children before they reached the age of 5. Instead of allowing these tragedies to ruin her life, she channeled her energy into a passionate campaign to improve the health of the children of Appalachia.
To Breckinridge, a healthy child required a safe birth, a living mother and a healthy family. Making childbirth safe was a primary goal when, in 1925, she founded the Frontier Nursing Service in Leslie County, Ky. The previous year, Breckinridge, 43 and already a nurse, had traveled to England to learn midwifery because she could find no adequate course in the United States. She continued to send FNS nurses to England until the outbreak of World War II.
The FNS deployed the first nurse-midwives to practice in the United States. Breckinridge had encountered nurse-midwives in Europe, and thought that the model was well suited not only for delivering babies but also for providing prenatal care and for assessing and helping to plan for the health needs of the whole family and, indeed, the whole community.
FNS nurses traveled by horseback to attend home births; high-risk patients went to the FNS hospital in Hyden, Ky. Clinics in the community served an average of 250 families. The FNS maternal mortality rate for its first 30 years was about one quarter of the rate for the United States as a whole.
Breckinridge died in 1965. The Frontier Nursing Service, based in Wendover, Ky., is still active, as its midwifery school, which was added in 1939.