Widely recognized as the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, Mary Breckinridge was born on February 17, 1881 in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1906, she attended nursing classes at New York City’s Saint Luke’s Hospital. She received her degree in nursing in 1910.
In the 1920s, she joined the American Committee for Devastated France. She realized that people with the training found in Europe could meet the healthcare needs of rural American mothers and infants.
Since midwifery training was not offered in the United States at that time, she returned to England to receive the necessary training at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies. She became certified by the Central Midwives Board. Breckinridge returned to the United States in 1925 and in May of that year founded the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, which became the Frontier Nursing Service. At this point in time, she began a model rural health care system.
In order to bring professional services to a thousand square mile area in southeastern Kentucky, Breckinridge developed a decentralized system of district nursing centers, nurse-midwives and hospital facilities. This system lowered the rate of death from childbirth in Leslie County, Kentucky, from the worst in the country to one substantially lower than the national average.
Because of these improvements, nurse-midwives were located no more than six miles away from any of their patients. Frontier Nursing Service staff members formed the nucleus of the American College of Nurse-Midwives in 1929. The first midwifery school was founded at the Maternity Center in New York in 1932 by a nurse-midwife certified by the FNS. The Frontier Nursing Service started its own school in 1939.
In 1952, Breckinridge wrote Wide Neighborhoods, her memoir.
She died on May 16, 1965, and was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1982.