HESSTON — Her mother may have wanted her to be a Southern belle, but Mary Breckinridge had other plans in mind.
Irene Nielsen will portray Breckinridge, the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, during "Tea With Personality" Sept. 16 at Dyck Arboretum.
Breckinridge was born in 1881 to a wealthy and influential family.
"Her grandfather was vice president to Buchanan, before Lincoln was president," Nielsen said. "She had a very political background, but also very Southern roots."
After the Civil War, Breckinridge's father became the ambassador to Russia.
"Her mother had a baby while they were over there, and that was Mary's first introduction to midwives," Nielsen said. "She thought it was a wonderful experience."
Breckinridge was sent to a Swiss boarding school, where she excelled before returning with her family to the United States.
"Her mother wanted her to be a Southern lady and she wanted something of purpose," Nielsen said.
Breckinridge married a lawyer in 1904, but he died two years later and they had no children together.
Supported by her aunt's money, Breckinridge went to school at St. Luke's Hospital in New York and earned a nursing degree in 1910.
While in New York, Breckinridge tried to adopt a baby girl with spina bifida named Margaret. Unfortunately, the baby was removed from her care and died shortly afterwards. Breckinridge paid for her funeral expenses.
"It just goes to show her compassion and her willingness to spend her own money where it did some good," Nielsen said.
In 1912, Breckinridge married a man who was the president of a college in Arkansas. Her son, Clifford, died young and her daughter, Polly, was born prematurely and also died. Breckinridge divorced her husband in 1920 after learning of his affairs.
World War I brought the opportunity for Breckinridge to use the French she learned in boarding school and her nursing skills.
"(Breckinridge) joined the recovery for France," Nielsen said. "She tells stories of homes that had been shelled. They had holes in the walls, so they stuffed petticoats in them to keep themselves warm."
When Breckinridge saw a mother so exhausted from forced marching that her milk had dried up, she wrote home to ask for donors to support a flock of goats.
"Her mother organized her social group and they got enough money to pay for 29 goats and the transportation across from the Pyrenees into France," Nielsen said. "Each of the goats were named for the donors."
It was in France that Breckinridge first encountered a district system with nurses giving immunizations, providing first aid and other public health services to people who lived in nearby towns.
Breckinridge later went to England and became a nurse-midwife, noting the need for trained medical care at birth.
"She thought it was best if the people who provided the care were both nurses and midwives," Nielsen said. "...There was no midwifery school in America."
Breckinridge returned to the United States in 1925. As she rode the mountain and hollers of Kentucky, she realized the need for nurse-midwives and wanted to serve the people living there.
"She rode 600 miles to survey the area," Nielsen said.
At the time, only a few doctors served the people living near Wendover, Kentucky — and nearly half were illiterate.
"That was the situation at the time. It was pretty dire and nobody cared," Nielsen said.
It was said that the most dangerous time in a person's life was being born, and that the second most dangerous time was giving birth.
"They were hours away from any help at all and the lay midwives did the best they could, but they were not really trained," Nielsen said. "Mary (Breckinridge) came in with a district nursing program and built a central nursing station and a hospital with six outlying clinics."
To staff the clinics, Breckinridge brought over nurse-midwives from England so they could be within one hour's horseback ride of their patients. The women sometimes had to ford flooded rivers and navigate washed-out paths to reach those in need of care, but they persevered.
"Within five years, the statistics improved in that area," Nielsen said. "...It was as good as, if not better than, the general population across the United States, even though most of the births were still in the homes in the hollers."
With an eye to the future of what was then called the Frontier Nursing Service, Breckinridge invited the
daughters of upper-class families to be couriers, working for six-week stints at the nurse stations to take care of the horses, do the housekeeping and run errands.
"Many of these couriers, then, as they grew up into families of wealth, they became supporters," Nielsen said.
The program never took any federal money until Medicare was established.
"(Breckinridge) financed the whole project herself — out of her own money — for three years," Nielsen said. "...During the Depression, it was harder, so she had to lay off some of her nurse-midwives, but some of them wouldn't quit."
Nielsen will share stories of Breckinridge's nursing career during "Tea With Personality" at 2 p.m. Sept. 16 at Dyck Arboretum, 177 W. Hickory St. in Hesston. The program includes a light tea. Tickets for the event are $35 and are available, along with more information, at http://www.historical-echoes.com. Reservations are recommended by Sept. 9.