Mary Breckinridge: Advocate, Nurse, Rural Healthcare Pioneer

Mary Breckinridge: Advocate, Nurse, Rural Healthcare Pioneer

As we continue to celebrate the Year of the Nurse here at American Sentinel University, this month, we’re talking about the importance of quality healthcare in rural communities – and how nursing pioneer, Mary Breckinridge (1881-1965), made an impact during her lifetime. Breckinridge established neonatal and childhood medical care systems throughout the U.S., leading to dramatic decreases in mortality rates among mothers and infant children.

Impacted by Her Own Loss of a Child

Breckinridge became a nurse after her husband died just two years after the couple was married. She graduated from St. Luke’s Hospital School of Nursing in New York City in 1910, started teaching French and hygiene at a women’s school, and remarried in 1912. In 1916, Breckinridge suffered the devastating loss of her newborn daughter, and two years later, the loss of her four-year-old son. That’s when she devoted her life to improving children’s healthcare.

A New Chapter in France

After her children’s deaths led to the unraveling of her marriage, Breckinridge began working as a public health nurse toward the end of World War I. She then got a job with the American Committee for Devastated France, helping to provide medical assistance for children, nursing mothers, and pregnant women in small villages throughout the country. This role convinced her that the health of American children in rural areas would improve if there were trained midwives to help them.

After studying public health nursing at Teachers College of Columbia University and midwifery in England, Breckinridge moved to Kentucky and became the first trained nurse-midwife in America. She founded the Frontier Nursing Service, using her inheritance from her mother to do so. She brought nurse-midwives into the hilly Appalachia area, which had a tremendous positive impact on the death rates of mothers and children.

Founding the American Association of Nurse-Midwives and a University

Breckenridge gained notoriety for her efforts in Appalachia, improving the maternal mortality rate significantly, which had been one of the highest in the country. Frontier Nursing Service nurses often made house calls by horseback to residents in the 700-square-mile rural area.

In 1929, Breckinridge’ founded the American Association of Nurse-Midwives. She traveled the country raising funds for the association and edited its journal. She went on to establish the Frontier Graduate School of Midwifery in 1939, which still exists today as Frontier Nursing University.

An Impressive Legacy of Caring and Service

Breckenridge’s legacy continues today as someone who cared deeply about improving infant and maternal healthcare and wanted to improve child welfare in impoverished areas in the U.S.

To Elaine Foster, dean of nursing and healthcare programs at American Sentinel, Mary Breckinridge has many of the qualities that American Sentinel seeks to encourage in students.

“Living in a rural area my whole life, I have seen the challenges that are faced by the rural community, Dr. Foster says. “I have served on a hospital board that struggled to find appropriate healthcare providers to serve the hospital and clinics. Working at a community college, we were faced with limited faculty resources to teach for the nursing program. This will continue to be a problem if our country does not look at ways to provide appropriate support to these rural areas. Mary Breckinridge was an early leader in this.”

Virtual Simulations to Address Rural Healthcare Issues

Dr. Foster adds that American Sentinel University has a virtual simulation called Sentinel World® that exposes students in its programs to health issues faced by both the urban and rural areas. Sentinel World is comprised of Sentinel City® and Sentinel Town®. Students enter these virtual environments to assess and evaluate the health care needs of that particular setting. 

American Sentinel Supports Rural Healthcare with Discounted Tuition and Scholarships

To help overcome rural healthcare disparities, American Sentinel is now offering tuition discounts and scholarships for nurses living in rural areas. If you are a nurse who works in a designated rural area you are eligible to receive a discounted tuition rate. We also offer eight “Rural Health” scholarships per calendar year to nursing students who live or work in a designated rural area or designated Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). Visit our paying for school webpage to learn more.


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