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Frontier Nursing Service, circa 1925
The story of Mary Breckinridge and the Frontier Nursing Service embodies the spirit of a woman born of privilege and prominence, plunged into the valley of despair over the loss of her only two children and the long walk back to bring her dreams of hope and humanity to an impoverished country.
The journey began in 1881, in Memphis, Tennessee, with the birth of Mary Breckinridge. Her mother, born in Louisiana, was the daughter of a plantation owner. Her father was a Kentuckian and the son of the Confederate General John C. Breckinridge who served as Vice President of the United States under James Buchanan. After marriage her parents moved to an Arkansas plantation and her father was eventually elected to congress.
Mary’s life was in continual geographic transition. She had no formal education as we know today, she was educated by the various governesses who attended her over her youth. When her father was appointed Minister to Russia and the family moved to St. Petersburg, her exposure to European and Russian societies were invaluable experiences.
Shortly after returning to America, Mary took a husband who soon died. Pondering her life and the happenstance of observing a child stricken with typhoid fever, Mary decided to become a nurse. In February of 1907 she entered the St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing in New York.
After taking her second husband, a son named Breckie was born at about the time of the first Great War. Nearly two and a half years later their daughter, Polly, was born prematurely and died with in six hours. Shortly after his fourth birthday, Breckie took ill and soon died. Mary immersed herself in nursing. She moved back and forth between Europe and America working with the health needs of a war torn Europe. She completed postgraduate training as a midwife at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies in London. During this time she spent a summer on horseback in the Kentucky mountains, learning the people and their needs and formulating a plan for rural healthcare.
Mary was drawn to the Kentucky mountains by family ties and the fact that it was considered one of Americas most impoverished and inaccessible frontiers. Using inheritance from her wealthy grandmother Lees who was a Kentuckian by birth, she moved to Hyden, Kentucky in 1925 to start what was to become the Frontier Nursing Service (F.N.S.). A few miles from Hyden, she built her two story log home and named it Wendover. Starting with three nurses in 1925 and expanding to thirty-one by 1928, they rode by horseback over the 700 square mile rugged terrain to deliver general healthcare and obstetrical services to mountain families.
The success of FNS drew visitors from every country. Her methods of delivering healthcare would be copied and used throughout this country and all over the world. Today, the FNS includes four rural healthcare centers, the Mary Breckinridge Home Health Agency, the Courier Program, and the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing (the largest midwifery school in the nation and the first Family Nurse Practitioner Program in the U.S., boasting students from every state and 7 foreign countries). Mary once said, “ We have grown like the banyan tree…with branches yielding shade and fruit to wide neighborhoods of men”.
Mary Breckinridge died on May 16, 1965, her work and her dreams live on.