The Frontier Nursing Service

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.

Mary Breckinridge

Mary Breckinridge at work

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.

5 thoughts on “The Frontier Nursing Service

  1. Mary Breckinridge sounds like an amazing and inspiring woman. I’m glad to hear that her legacy continues.

  2. Thanks for letting people know about this remarkable founder of modern nurse-midwifery. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  3. Pingback: » Women’s History Blog Carnival

  4. This is my neck of the woods. I’m so very proud to have that rich history here. I wish Kentucky would move once again to licensing CNMs for homebirths. Mary Breckinridge is very much an inspiration.

  5. I’ve never read anything about the history of nurse-midwifery. That is a great post, thank you for sharing, Delia.

    I’m stopping by from SITS, have a great Saturday.

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