Mary Carson Breckinridge

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Mary Carson Breckinridge

Birthdate: (84)
Birthplace: Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Death: 1965 (84)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Clifton R. Breckinridge, (CSA), U.S. Congress and Catherine B. Breckinridge
Sister of Lt. Gen. James Carson Breckinridge, USMC; Private; John Cabell Breckenridge and Private

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Immediate Family

About Mary Carson Breckinridge

Mary Breckinridge (February 17, 1881 – May 19, 1965) was an American nurse-midwife and the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service. She also was known as Mary Carson Breckinridge. She started family care centers in the Appalachian mountains. She was known for helping many people with her hospitals.

Family and early Life

Born in Memphis, Tennessee into a prominent family, Breckinridge was a daughter of Arkansas Congressman Clifton Rodes Breckinridge and a granddaughter of John C. Breckinridge. She was educated by private tutors in Washington, DC and in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In 1894, Breckinridge and her family moved to Russia when President Grover Cleveland appointed her father to serve as the U.S. minister to that country. They returned to the United States in 1897.

Breckinridge’s mother disapproved of her cousin Sophonisba Breckinridge’s going to college and starting a career. She helped ensure her daughter followed a more traditional path. Breckinridge was married in 1904 to a lawyer, Henry Ruffner Morrison, of Hot Springs, Arkansas. He died only two years later; the couple had no children. Following his death, Breckinridge entered a nursing class at New York City’s St. Luke’s Hospital. She remained there three years, taking a degree in nursing in 1910 before returning to the South. In 1912 she married Richard Ryan Thompson, a Kentucky native who was serving as the president of Crescent College and Conservatory in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The couple had two children. Their daughter, Polly, was born prematurely in 1916 and died when only six hours old. Two years later, their beloved four-year-old boy, Clifford Breckinridge (“Breckie”) Thompson, died suddenly of appendicitis. Breckinridge's husband was unfaithful; they were divorced in 1920 and Breckinridge resumed the use of her birth name.


Breckinridge turned to nursing to overcome the travails of her children’s deaths and her divorce, joining the American Committee for Devastated France. While in Europe she met French and British nurse-midwives and realized that people with their training could meet the healthcare needs of rural America’s mothers and babies. A deeply religious woman, Breckinridge considered this path to be her life’s calling.

Since no midwifery course was then offered in the United States Breckinridge returned to England to receive the training she needed at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies. She was then certified by the Central Midwives Board. She returned to the United States in 1925 and on May 28 of that year founded the Kentucky Committee for Mothers and Babies, which soon became the Frontier Nursing Service.

Breckinridge had a large log house, called the Big House, built in Wendover, Kentucky to serve as her home and the Frontier Nursing Service headquarters. In 1939 she started her own midwifery school. There, Breckinridge conducted Sunday afternoon services using the Episcopal prayer book. In 1952 she completed her memoir "Wide Neighborhoods" which is still available from the University of Kentucky Press.

She continued to lead the Frontier Nursing Service until her death in 1965.


She has been honored by the United States Postal Service with a 77¢ Great Americans series postage stamp.


Mary Breckinridge was the nation's foremost pioneer in the development of American midwifery and the provision of care to the nation's rural areas as founder of the Frontier Nursing Service.

Breckinridge, descendant of a distinguished family that included a U.S. vice president and a Congressman and diplomat, lost her first husband and two children to early death. She turned to nursing as an outlet for her energies, committed to "raise the status of childhood everywhere," as a memorial to her own lost children. She spent time as a public health nurse during World War I, and became convinced that the nurse-midwife concept could help children in rural America.

After additional nursing studies and midwifery training, she went to rural Kentucky and began work in 1925. In 1928, her service was named the Frontier Nursing Service, and was for several years entirely underwritten by Breckinridge's personal funds. Designed around a central hospital and one physician with many nursing outposts to compensate for the absence of reliable roads or transportation, the service featured nurses on horseback able to reach even the most remote areas in all kinds of weather. Within five years, FNS had reached more than 1,000 rural families in an area exceeding 700 square miles and staff members of FNS formed the organization that became the American Association of Nurse-Midwives. Breckinridge masterminded the fundraising and publicity necessary to keep the service growing. The Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing, another part of FNS, trained hundreds of midwives.

The FNS hospital in Hyden, Kentucky is now named the Mary Breckinridge Hospital, and it operates today, with a new Women's Health Care Center, still fulfilling the mission that Breckinridge created in the 1920s. On her deathbed Breckinridge commented, "The glorious thing about it is that it has worked!"

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Mary Carson Breckinridge's Timeline

Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Age 84