Day in history: 2/15/1881

Mrs. Mary Breckinridge

Mary Breckinridge was born February 17,1881, in Memphis, Tennessee, to a southern aristocratic family. She was the great granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson’s attorney, the granddaughter of the Vice-President of the United States under President Buchanan and the daughter of a United States Ambassador to Russia. Her education consisted primarily of private tutors in Washington D.C. and in St. Petersburg. She was taught by the most renowned tutors of the day. Her family traveled extensively so she was exposed to many different cultures and lifestyles.

At the age of 23, Mrs. Breckinridge married an attorney; she believed he was her soul mate and she spoke of how her heart was full of passion just to simply stand near him. Their martial bliss would last for only a fleeting two years, as he would die from appendicitis.

At the age of 26, Mrs. Breckinridge attended the St. Luke’s school of nursing and in 1910 graduated with a degree in nursing.

In 1912, Mrs. Breckinridge married her second husband and from that union two children were born. Prior to becoming a mother Mrs. Breckinridge taught French and Hygiene at Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where her husband was also the President of the college. Her first child, Clifford Breckinridge (“Breckie”) Thompson, was born in 1914. She called Breckie “a fair haired wonder”. In July 1916 tragedy struck. Mrs. Breckinridge gave birth to her daughter, Polly, who was born prematurely and died after only six hours. Mrs. Breckinridge spoke of Polly’s passing and encouraged women who had endured the same loss to keep the baby alive in their heart. She also said “The more we seek to hold our children to ourselves, the less they are ours”.

On a cold and brisk January morning in 1918 something would happen that would shake the very foundation of all that Mrs. Breckinridge believed in. At the age of four, Breckie would subsume to appendicitis. She was devastated, from that moment life as she knew it changed forever.

In 1920 Mary Breckinridge did something that was unheard of in that day. She filed for divorce and asked the court to restore her maiden name. She said her generation thought it in poor taste to discuss a broken marriage. She later revealed that in the days to follow she made a promise to herself and that she would never love anyone and would never allow anyone to love her.

After the death of her children and the divorce, she turned to nursing for comfort and strength. She joined the American Committee for Devastated France following the end of World War I. While in Europe she became acquainted with the nurse-midwives in France and Great Britain and thought with their training, she could perhaps meet the problem of medical care for mothers and babies in rural America. It was during this time Mrs. Breckinridge recognized a call upon her life. She relayed to her mother that she was sure this was what she was meant to do.

At the age of 43, Mrs. Breckinridge returned to England to study midwifery since no course was offered in the United States. She secured the necessary training at the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies and obtained her certificate from the Central Midwives Board.

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