Mary Breckinridge, the first American CNM

At a time when maternal mortality was 800/100,000 and infant mortality claimed one in ten lives, Mary Breckinridge was a true life-saver. She established Frontier Nursing Service in 1925, which brought quality care to rural (and typically, impoverished) Kentucky women. Frontier still trains nurse midwives. Here are a few articles about Mary Breckinridge, in honor of National Midwifery Week:

In many ways, Ms. Breckinridge was to nurse-midwifery what Ina May Gaskin is to non-nurse midwifery. Most of us are probably more familiar with Ina May than Mary Breckinridge, for many reasons — we home-birthers tend to hire CPMs rather than CNMs (who many times cannot legally attend home births); we’ve read her engaging books; she’s still alive and giving interviews, and working hard promoting midwifery and awareness of maternal mortality, etc. But there are many similarities between the two women — both saw a need and filled it; both popularized midwifery; it’s possible that without Mary Breckinridge, there would be no “CNM” at all, and perhaps without Ina May Gaskin there would be no CPM either. There have been many other influential figures, and many other necessary players, in the realm of midwifery; but in each of these cases, they were at least the starting point in their respective fields, and in so doing, saved midwifery and/or home birth. In some ways, Ms. Breckinridge had a harder role, perhaps, living at a time when doctors were on a full-court press to eliminate midwives as dirty and incompetent (in contrast to their sterile hospitals and/or sterile technique, in addition to their high-falutin’ education). The fact that maternal mortality increased with the increase in hospital births was not widely known; and the fact that these “dirty” and “incompetent” midwives had lower maternal mortality attending home births than doctors attending home births; and home birth had lower maternal mortality (and morbidity) than hospital birth, was actively suppressed by obstetricians of the day, in their PR campaign to drive out midwives and midwifery. For a woman to consciously and willingly step into a demonized role, roll up her sleeves, and get to work, should be recognized and given full credit. In some ways, I think it might be like the wife or daughter of a plantation owner going to live in a slave hut, and working the fields, instead of living a pampered life of ease and enjoyment.

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