Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Mary Breckinridge and The Frontier Nursing Service

       I am so happily reading the autobiography of Mary Carson Breckinridge, "Wide Neighborhoods."

       Born in 1881, Mary's father moved the family to Saint Petersberg in Russia. He was the United States Ambassador and Mary remembers meeting Czar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra. She later attended boarding school in Switzerland. It is fascinating to relate her life experiences to others I have read about by Tolstoy and Queen Victoria, and by watching "Downton Abbey" and "Call the Midwife."

       Mary's family bought two islands on the Muskoka Lakes in Ontario, not far from where I worked and vacationed on Ahmic Lake. Having moved all over the world, and though they still owned family lands in the South, this was where the family considered "home." They had a large house built when the lake froze over and supplies could be hauled across the ice. Her mother spent most summers there for the rest of her life. Mary loved her mother, father, two brothers and sister devotedly.

       In adulthood Mary lost a young husband, and dealt with grief through service. She trained as a nurse in New York. She married again, but was later divorced from her second husband following the tragic deaths of her baby girl Polly and four-year-old son Breckie.

       Once again, Mary plunged herself into service. After Breckie's death she helped with the war relief in France for several years. She fell in love with the poor, the mountains, and needy children. She was exposed to the nurse-midwives of Great Britain who volunteered in France alongside her. Midwives in the United States were not formally trained nurses at that time, and she was inspired.

       She returned to her family lands in and near Kentucky and rode on horseback, covering thousands of square miles through the Appalachian Mountains, and decided that she would serve those mountain folk. Mary knew the value in great preparation. She traveled to England to become a nurse-midwife, then spent a summer traversing the Hebrides on foot, horse and boat to learn all about a successful rural public health program there.

       Finally ready, she secured the support of friends, judges, officials, nurses, doctors and locals and created the "Frontier Nursing Service" in 1925. The nurse-midwives delivered babies, and provided families with healthcare in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, traveling by horseback. Daily, they might have to ford rivers and travel scores of miles. They were always treated with respect, great hospitality and even "chivalry" by the mountain men, women and children.

       Mary Breckinridge died in 1965 in her eighties; she directly affected the lives of tens of thousands of people, and many, many more indirectly. She is an example of faith and redemptive suffering. Mary would have been happy being a devoted Mom to her two children, had they lived. She wrote in her prolific journals about the dreams she had for them. But their deaths inspired in her great service, and changed the lives of those many thousands for the better.

       I'll close with a quote from"Wide Neighborhoods," as Mary relates a story about a little Kentucky girl, thrilled with a rag doll:

"The doll...was a piece of old blanket, tied around the middle with a string, with a stone fastened at one end for a face. But she loved it, with that creative instinct older than recorded time, which springs up anew in every girl baby. Why must she needs mother something, with the first outreaching of her tiny hands? Why plead so early for a life whose sword shall one day pierce her own? 
When Christmas comes we understand a little less dimly. The Light of the World could only come to His own through a woman's body. Only a woman held the mysteries of His advent, and pondered them in her heart."

       As Christmas is not over until Epiphany--I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The Abbey Farm


  1. Thank you for the blog post. Our founder was quite an amazing woman. Visit our website for more information on her and Frontier Nursing University www.frontier.edu

  2. Thank you so much for your comment, I am continuing to have such a wonderful time, reading through "Wide Neighborhoods," story by story. I hope that Heidi Thomas indeed continues to develop her project to bring this amazing woman's work to life.
    I just finished Chapter 22 about the difficulties in building the first Hyden Hospital. Could I have ever been so intrigued before, reading about septic tanks and water diviners? I think not, but Mary Breckinridge told these stories so entertainingly! I love her description in Chapter 22 of the opening ceremonies, bringing in Sir Leslie and Lady MacKenzie, guests, and even a band in on mule-drawn wagons and a buckboard over such rough terrain and swollen rivers during a storm. Heroes, all. I laughed out loud reading: "All through the morning the Perry County band played with such spirit and feeling as only miners who have been half-drowned can play." God bless those souls! As Mary wrote they all met the challenges with "imperturbable good humor."
    Sir Leslie MacKenzie's dedication rings true, nearly a century later: "Far in the future, men and women, generation after generation, will arise to bless the name of the Frontier Nursing Service."
    Yes, God bless the work that all of you do.