Mary Breckinridge dedicated her life to rural public health care, but it wasn't until after she suffered a series of personal tragedies, including the deaths of her two young children, that she heard the call to nursing.
She studied at St. Luke's Hospital in New York, and became a registered nurse in 1910. Nursing took her to Boston and Washington, D.C., and even to France as part of the American Committee for Devastated France after World War I. While in France, Breckinridge was introduced to French and British nurse-midwives, a path Breckinridge decided dovetailed perfectly with her desire to bring health care to rural poor families in America. When she was in her early 40s, Breckinridge studied midwifery in London and is credited with introducing nurse-midwifery to America [source: Frontier Nursing Service].
In 1925, Breckinridge founded the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS), a team of nurse-midwives devoted to bringing general and maternal care (including prenatal and postnatal care) to people living in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky. The FNS nurses traveled by horseback to deliver babies and provide family care, accepting little money (or barter) as payment.