You are browsing the archive for Mary Breckinridge.

Women’s reproductive health in Appalachia

October 1, 2011 in 1920s-30s, 1940s-1950s, Social history

Peggy McDowell CurlinWhile Mary Breckinridge, the nurse-midwife who reformed maternal-child and family health by founding the Frontier Nursing Service, is more famous, we should also celebrate Peggy McDowell Curlin from Harlan, Kentucky. President of the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), a non-governmental agency that continues to provide leadership and management training to women involved in reproductive health throughout the world. Her grandmother was the state president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a member of the women’s wing of the Masons called the Eastern Star. A transcript of her oral history interviews is available online from the Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.

In the spirit of a great many powerful women who have fought against prejudice and ignorance in eastern Kentucky, Our Bodies, Ourselves: East Kentucky Women Speak Out is a storytelling forum of the East Kentucky Reproductive Health Project. The project is led by young women from southeastern Kentucky who are producing and distributing media that explores the reproductive health experiences, concerns and needs of young women in the region. They have created a website that invites story sharing about the many topics surrounding reproductive health. Women from central Appalachia can visit to add their story to the collection. Those whose experiences are not from the Central Appalachian region can visit

Share your story and become part of this important effort. Contact EKRHP and you will be paired with a trained, female filmmaker through AMI, the Appalachian Media Institute. Your story will be documented in a respectful and caring manner for use by the project. You may also choose to document your story anonymously.

By sharing stories and comprehensive, factual information EKRHP works to build a foundation for individual and collective action for reproductive justice in Kentucky, including access and availability of reproductive health care in the eastern region.


Curlin, Peggy. Interview by Deborah McFarlane. Transcript of audio recording, May 13 and 15, 2003. Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection.

Goan, Melanie Beals. Mary Breckinridge: the Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia. University of North Carolina Press Books, 2008.

“Peggy McDowell Curlin,” Wikipedia article,

by Measha

Mary Breckinridge

September 17, 2010 in 1960s-1970s

Mary Breckinridge (1881-1965), a registered nurse, dedicated her life to improving the health of women and children.  In her autobiography written in 1952, she recalled, “After I click had met British nurse-midwives, first in France and then on my visits to London, it grew upon me that nurse-midwifery was the logical response to the needs of the young child in rural America.”  She Breckinridge decided to tackle the health problems of children and their mothers in eastern Kentucky.

Established the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in 1925
Founded a hospital that served rural families across southeastern Kentucky mountains in an area ranging about 700 square miles
FNS included a service in which nurse-midwives visited clients at their homes
The death of mothers in childbirth in Leslie County, Kentucky, dropped “from the highest in the country to well below the national average (Gina Castlenovo, Biography of Mary Breckinridge, The Center for Nursing Advocacy, Inc., 2003).”


The American College of Nurse Midwives recognizes Breckinridge as “the first to bring nurse-midwifery to the United States.”  In 1982, Breckinridge was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame.

Skip to toolbar