Fair use photo from herkentucky.com

From Delivering Babies to Hope: A Success Story


By Taya Hillerud |Social Work Major

Mary Breckinridge was completely moved by the experience, as Ethnographer, Mary Ann Ruffing-Rahal quotes Breckinridge herself, “War and desolation all around and I live peacefully in a peaceful country. Can I do nothing?” (615). She spent time in France after WWI, helping with what was left of the devastated and poverty stricken country. She worked with the American Committed for Devastated France, helping unhealthy children Breckinridge knew that she needed to do something, whether it be in France, or back home in rural Kentucky. She felt moved to act upon her experiences.

Breckinridge went into nursing school soon after her first marriage failed. After getting married again and dealing with the death of her children a few years later, she went to France. It was there that her career as a nurse midwife really started. She set up many programs of nursing care for children, as well as for pregnant women. Soon after working in France, she realized that the French healthcare system was what the rural south really needed. This is when she became determined to reform the healthcare system for children and women in the rural south, starting at home in Kentucky. Breckinridge used the disastrous disadvantages, career changing opportunities, and draining hard work and effort to reform the midwifery system and healthcare system for children and women in rural Kentucky.

Breckinridge used the disastrous disadvantages, career changing opportunities, and draining hard work and effort to reform the midwifery system and healthcare system for children and women in rural Kentucky.

Breckinridge experienced many disadvantages throughout her life, yet she used them as advantages in pursuing her nursing career. The loss of her children, at such young ages greatly affected Breckinridge. Shortly after being born, her daughter died. Then, right after — even more untimely — her four-year-old son died. She used the death of her children as a type of motivation to reform the health care system for children, as well as the midwifery system. She was extremely devastated after the poor and unfit health care that she and her children received, ultimately led to the death of both of her children. She pursued nursing as her ultimate career strongly after this. “Following the death of both of her children at an early age, Breckinridge dedicated her life to improving the health of women and children. She became a registered nurse in 1910, at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York.” (Castlenvovo 1). Breckinridge’s strong will and determination channeled the pain of losing her children to reform the health-care system for many women and children in the rural south. It became her passion. But, she had a few more disadvantages and setbacks along the way.

Breckinridge had troubles finding funding for the reforms and programs she wanted to start. Dr. Edna Johnson states “Breckinridge was unsuccessful in obtaining funds from the state of Kentucky Children’s Bureau or the American Child Health Association.” (646). Breckinridge eventually went ahead with her plans using her own money. She later received contributions from friends, family and wealthy donors. She did have support from Arthur McCormack, a health commissioner for the state of Kentucky. He was ultimately the advantage in her reforms, because he, “suggested Leslie County as the site of the first nursing center; gave Mary Breckinridge a certificate, licensing her to practice midwifery in Kentucky; and provided licensing of nurse-midwives educated in England.” (Johnson 646). With all the support from her friends and family, as well as McCormack, she set up the first nursing center in Leslie County, Kentucky. The disadvantage of not having and funding initially devastated Breckinridge, but she didn’t let it get it her down for long. She used it as motivation to set up the first nursing center in Leslie County, Kentucky. She proved that she was extremely serious and dedicated to bringing healthcare to the rural south.

Even though she was able to set up the nursing center, there was a lot of doubt and questioning from the people in the county on the level and adequacy of the health care that she was providing. This was because Breckinridge brought in nurses from England and Scotland since there was no training for nurse-midwifes in America. Author Christine Kreiser writes about rumors stated by those in the county, “The nurses were strangers, unmarried women, who had no children of their own. What could they possibly know about birthing babies in hardscrabble Kentucky?” (68) Eventually the rumors died down as peopled realized that the English and Scottish nurses were educated and very skilled as they were able to deliver healthy babies in difficult circumstances. Breckinridge again, turns the disadvantages of people not believing in the adequacy of her health care, to an advantage. She used the rumors that the English and Scottish nurses were unfit, to prove that the American nurses were really unfit and what was causing the unfit health care in America. The English and Scottish nurses were one of the many reasons and advantages that Breckinridge used in her reforms and nursing centers.

Breckinridge had many opportunities that strengthened her career path. She spent time in France after WWI with the American Committee for Devastated France, helping the unhealthy children. “Breckinridge was deeply touched by the children whose lives had be upended by brutality and want, but she longed to return home to work for the welfare of American children.’ (64) She learned of a British program that trained nurse-midwives to provide medical care in areas where it was scarce, she knew it was exactly what American needed. She studied nursing at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies, and spent time in Scotland with the Highlands and Islands Medical and Nursing Service. She knew that if this system of health care would work in the rural and remote areas of Kentucky, that she would be able to spread it throughout the rest of the country. Her goal was to “increase accessibility to professional services for the population, and to reduce infant mortality rates and to raise the level of health of the population.” (Johnson 645) She used the skills that she learned in England and Scotland in Kentucky while still remaining true to the cultures and beliefs of the mountain people. Bringing nurses from England and Scotland to help train the granny midwives in the reform systems. They soon would be referred to as Frontier Nurses. The Frontier Nurses encouraged mothers to get prenatal checkup, and were to never leave their patients sides. By Breckinridge’s death in 1965, the Frontier Nurses had delivered 14,500 babies, with only 11 maternal deaths. Breckinridge’s opportunities in France after the war, and to learn nurse-midwifery in England and Scotland, are what lead to the success of the Frontier Nurses, and reforms. Her opportunities brought about the system and ways of health care and midwifery that changed the entire face of the American healthcare system. Without these opportunities, Breckinridge wouldn’t have had the skills to shape the healthcare system or accomplish what she did.

Disadvantages and opportunities aren’t the only things that made Breckinridge’s dreams and success possible. Just as many other success stories, Breckinridge’s is also one that includes hard work and effort. Author Malcom Gladwell writes about the nature of work in his book “Outliers” in a three step process. A process that can apply to any success story, including the success story of Mary Breckinridge. He begins by saying that the work must be meaningful, and gives his previous example of rice farmers. Their work meant that they would have food and money, there was a clear relationship between effort and reward. Breckinridge’s work was extremely meaningful to her, in that it all started with the loss of her children. She dedicated her life to bettering health care for women and children. The second step of the process is that the work must be complex. Gladwell states that the work of the rice farmers wasn’t just “simply planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall.” The rice farmers often “runs a small business, juggles a family workforce, and coordinates the complicated process of seeding and harvesting.” (236) Breckinridge’s work also wasn’t simple; it was extremely complex. She had to first find and come up with way to reform the health care in the rural south. Considering that there wasn’t any training for nurse-midwives in America, that made finding a system even more difficult. She thought she found a solution by bringing in nurse-midwives from England and Scotland, only to find that it would only create more problems for herself. Her work was extremely complex, so she had to work even harder to achieve her goals. Gladwell continues with the final step; the work must be autonomous. A significant portion of Breckinridge’s success attributes to her being in control of what happened with the Frontier Nurses and how she was able to make and decide things completely on her own. Not having the funding from the Kentucky Children’s Bureau or the American Child Health Association, played a big part in Breckinridge being allowed to make her own decisions for her reform systems, she didn’t have anyone above her that she had to listen too. She was all on her own, and while that may have been an obstacle for her in the beginning, it turned out to be a huge advantage. Breckinridge’s story of success wasn’t easy to achieve, but her opportunities and disadvantages pushed her to work hard and put in extreme amounts of effort which lead to a successful career.

Frontier Nurses used to ride horseback to make house calls. They rode in wearing blue and gray uniforms, with saddlebags packed full of medical supplies. “There was something romantic about the notion of a woman riding alone through the hills, delivering babies and hope.” (Kreiser 70). Breckinridge used this image to spread her campaign of the hopes of better healthcare systems for women and children. Breckinridge’s work continues even now. She successfully brought reform to an underdeveloped, rural area. As well as bringing about the reforms in healthcare, she contributed to the Frontier Graduate School off Midwifery in Hyden, which was the first school of its kind in the United States. The school is still currently running. The Frontier nurse’s used to make calls on horseback, something they no longer do, but they still remain working with the Mary Breckinridge Regional Healthcare Hospital. Success isn’t just measured off of one thing alone. Just as Gladwell writes that there is a three step process for hard work, there are also many ingredients to the bowl of success. Breckinridge’s success wasn’t just because she worked hard, or because she was given amazing, career changing opportunities. Her success was based off the way she used the devastating disadvantages in her life, as well as the opportunities that she was given, and the hard work and effort that she put in. Success isn’t something that is just handed out to everyone. It’s a common misconception that all successful people had their success handed to them or that they got lucky. This misconception isn’t true though. Success isn’t based on luck. All success, including that of Mary Breckinridge, is based on how people use their disadvantages as advantages, how they use their opportunities, and how hard they work.

Works Cited:

Castlenovao, Gina. “Mary Breckinridge.” Mary Breckinridge N.p., Nov. 2003. Web. 01 Mar. 2016

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. New York: Little Brown and Company. 2008. Print

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath. New York: Little Brown and Company. 2013. Print.

Johnson, Edna. “Mary Breckinridge- A Voice from the Past.” Western Journal of Nursing Research 23.6(2001): 644–653. Web

Kreiser, Christine M. “Call the Midwife.” Call the Midwife 50.2(n.d):62–71 . Rpt. in American History. 2nd ed. Vol. 50. N.p., : n.p., n.d. 62–71. Bethel Library. Web. 04 Mar. 2016.

N/A. “Mary Breckinridge. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encylopedia Britannica Online. Encylopedia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016

N/A. “Dreamers and Doers: Voices of Kentucky Women: Mary Breckinride.” KY Women History Project. NA. NA. NA. Web. 24 April 2016

Ruffing-Rahal, Mary Ann. “Ethnographic Traits in the Writings of Mary Breckinridge.” Journal of Advanced Nursing. 16.5(N/A): 614–620. Web.

Photo by Conrad Engstrom.


Taya Hillerud , a freshmen from New Brighton, Minn., would someday like to work with children who have mental health issues. Hillerud likes cuddling with her puppy, spending all day laying in bed watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S. on Netflix, and warm summer nights with friends around a bonfire.


Silence is okay.

You don’t have to be perfect, no one is.

Your opinion matters. Even if no one listens to you. It’s still important.

Hard work takes you places, so put in the effort.

Sometimes, something isn’t right for you. That’s okay. Just keep your head up and move on.

The more you listen to other people, the more you learn. Keep your ears open.

Pursue your dreams. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

Advantages can come out of so many things.

Failure isn’t possible.

No one is going to criticize you more that you already criticize yourself.

1:30 am, studying for Anatomy, I realized that I had a paper due at 8 am for College writing. Panic struck my body like lightning strikes a metal pole. Realizing that there was no way I was gonna do any better in Anatomy, I gave up, calmed myself down, and started writing my paper. 3 am, halfway through my paper by this point, reading about how Breckinridge thoroughly loved and enjoyed her career, is when I realized that torturing myself to go through all the science classes for a nursing major wasn’t worth it to me anymore. Which is okay. Nothing is worth agony and torturing yourself by studying all night. Nothing is worth tears and anxiety attacks. Nothing.