Mary Breckinridge (1881-1965)

Mary Breckinridge stampMary Breckinridge was born in 1881 to an influential Kentucky family. She was educated in both Europe and the USA as her father was the United States Ambassador to the court of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (1894-1897). Mary Breckinridge married and had two children, both of whom died young. When she was widowed in 1926, she focused on improving women and children’s health and trained as a nurse at St Luke’s Hospital in New York.

During World War One she worked in France and met many European nurse-midwives. After the war she studied public health nursing at Columbia University and wanted to work among the poor families of Eastern Kentucky. First, she trained as a midwife at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies in Woolwich near London. She then spent some time working with the Queen’s Nurses (QNIS) of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service in Scotland, seeing how decentralised community health care was delivered in a rural area. She returned to Kentucky with her goals firmly in mind and established the Kentucky Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in 1925, becoming its first director and introducing a new type of health care to rural America.

The FNS was established as a charitable organisation serving an area of around 700 square miles in south east Kentucky. Ms Breckinridge raised funds for the FNS and employed staff trained in England. They travelled on horseback and foot providing maternal and child health care in people’s homes. Infant and maternal mortality rates improved dramatically. The families paid low fees or in kind, whatever they could afford.

The FNS still serves Kentucky with the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing, four rural clinics and the Breckinridge Hospital in Hyden.

Ms Breckinridge is recognised as a nurse-midwife pioneer worldwide and in 1982 was inducted into the American Nurses Hall of Fame for her contributions to nursing and women’s health, community and family nursing and rural health care delivery. She died in 1965 at the age of 84. She is pictured on her horse Doc in 1963, only two years before she died (Mary Breckinridge on Doc, Nursing Mirror, 19 April 1963).

The stamp shown was issued in 1998, part of the Great American Series, the first to show ordinary Americans from diverse fields and ethnicities unlike previous series. They are quite plain and simple in design and were printed between 1980 and 2002.


‘Wide Neighbourhoods: A Story of the Frontier Nursing Service', Mary Breckinridge, 1952.