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Constance Alexander: Chautauqua lecture series visit with midwife founder is multi-course affair

In the usual no-nonsense uniform she describes as “indestructible,” Mary Carson Breckinridge welcomes us to dinner at Wendover, her rustic log home on the banks of the Middle Forks River in eastern Kentucky. Addressing us in an imperious but good-humored tone, she announces that it is 1952.

Ms. Breckinridge is clearly in charge, so no one in the audience at Murray’s First Presbyterian Church will dare remind her that the year is actually 2023.

Welcome to a Chautauqua performance from Kentucky Humanities, a program that literally brings history to life in communities across Kentucky.

Janet Scott (Photo from Kentucky Humanities)

Founder of Frontier Nursing Services in Hyden, Ms. Breckinridge explains that she has been in the mountains of eastern Kentucky for twenty-five years, providing midwives for rural Letcher County. The girls she recruits to the mountains – many of them daughters of wealthy families — “learn how to serve others.”

They ride horses, ford fast-flowing rivers, and endure every weather extreme imaginable. And oh, they deliver babies and take care of mothers and families.

Born into privilege, Mary was drawn to midwifery as early as age 13, when her father’s government position took the family from rural Arkansas to St. Petersburg, Russia. Her mother was pregnant and two doctors and a midwife were in attendance for the birth. While Mary’s mother was in labor, the doctors drank tea and chatted. The midwife, in traditional Russian garb, rolled up her sleeves and delivered the baby.

Young Mary concluded, “Every mother and every baby deserves impeccable care.”

From the start, Mary Carson Breckinridge was different from her female peers. Despite wealth, many young women in her era were not educated. They were supposed to go to parties, meet suitable partners, marry well, and have children. Although Mary chafed at the idea, she married happily at 23.

Sadly, she was a widow by 25.

Grief-stricken, she struggled to plan for the long years ahead. A friend suggested she enter the nursing program at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, and Mary took the advice. After that, she married again and had two children.

A little boy came first. “He was the light of my life,” Mary said.

Three years after was a daughter, Polly, who lived only six hours. Breckie, the little boy, died of an illness at age four.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

“We went from one dark cradle to the next” is the way Mary described it.

Not long after, Mary and Richard Ryan Thompson divorced and she resumed use of her maiden name.

“It was like putting on a pair of working shoes,” Mary explained.

Her journey led to Europe in the aftermath of World War I. The 1918 flu epidemic was taking a toll and Mary’s nursing skills were put to work. She was assigned to lead a group that went from house to house in France and instructed the poor in proper hygiene and health care practices.

In France she discovered her talent for organizing and fund raising, eventually heading to England for additional training. As a result, she became the first nurse in the U.S. to secure an advanced degree in midwifery.

“I decided to dedicate my life to children. I would not stop being a mother,” Breckinridge declared.

Her vision was transformed into a demonstration model in Letcher County, Ky. “If our system would work there,” she said, “it could work anywhere.”

The challenge presented by geography alone was daunting. In 1925, Letcher was extremely isolated, “the mountains slashed with rivers.” Tiny communities had names like “Hell for Certain.” In a 700-square-mile area, there was one resident physician.

The only way in and out of the hills and hollers was on foot, mule or horseback.

As she delivered this statistic, Mary Breckinridge leaned toward us, her voice dropping to a stage whisper as she added, “in the wealthiest nation in the world.”

Her leadership and vision made a difference in Letcher County. Frontier Nursing Service, now a university, continues to train nurses all over the world.

“We’ve come a long way,” she says, “but there is so much more work to be done.”

The way Chautauqua presenter, Janet Scott, told the story, we were drawn into the world of Mary Breckinridge, fully enthralled. We became part of her “Wide Neighborhoods,” which is also the title of her book about the origins and history of Frontier Nursing Service.

At the end of the Chautauqua presentation, with the announcement that dinner is ready, we are promised chicken and dumplings. Ms. Breckinridge beckons us.

“Shall we go in?” she asks. “I’ll lead the way.

The presenter and writer of the Chautauqua production is Janet Scott of Lexington. Her 30-year career as a working actress in New York City also included writing plays and teaching. In Kentucky, she has also portrayed Mary Settles, the last Shaker at Pleasant Hill as part of the Kentucky Chautauqua program. In addition, Ms. Scott is a guest artist with the University of Kentucky Opera and serves as an acting coach to singers around the world.

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One Comment

  1. Pat Lagay says:

    Many thanks Connie. Great information.

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