‘Famous Midwives’ is a Feminist Midwife blog series to bring awareness to the work of midwives, promote the national and international impact of midwifery, and advertise the images of those known to some by name, to few by face, but to midwives as part of our community. Each “Part” of the series includes midwives considered “famous” by the nature of their work, their contribution to the profession, and their presence as motivators and forward-thinkers and change-makers. Five midwives are included in each “Part,” with great respect for the diversity of the profession’s history and future, attention to the past and the present, and ultimate adoration for the variety of capacities midwives fill in their provision of our dedicated model of care. If you know a famous midwife who should be featured on the series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frontier Nursing Service
Photo Credit: Frontier Nursing Service
From her biography on the Truth About Nursing website:
In the early 1900s, many women in rural areas of the United States had no access to health care. Most women gave birth to their children at home, with only the help of family members or neighbors. For every 100,000 live births, over 800 resulted in maternal death (vs. 7.7 per 100,000 in the US today), and 100 out of 1000 children died before their first birthday (vs. 7.2 per 1000 in the US today).
Mary Breckinridge, born in 1881 to an influential Kentucky family, enjoyed a privileged childhood and education in the U.S. and Europe. Her father was the U.S. ambassador to Czar Nicholas II of Russia from 1894 to 1897.
In 1906, Breckinridge was widowed at age 26. Following the death of both her children at an early age, Breckinridge dedicated her life to improving the health of women and children. She became a registered nurse in 1910, at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. While working in France during World War I, she was exposed to new healthcare ideas: “After I 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…My work would be for them.”
After the war, Breckinridge studied public health nursing at Columbia University. She decided to tackle the health problems of eastern Kentucky, an area of few roads and no physicians, thinking that if her plans succeeded in such a poor, inaccessible area, they could work anywhere. Traveling on horseback, she surveyed families about their health needs and local lay-midwives about birth practices. She found that women lacked prenatal care and gave birth to an average of nine children, primarily attended by self-taught lay midwives, farmers’ wives who relied on folklore and invasive practices.
Breckinridge saw high maternal mortality and came to believe that children’s healthcare should begin in the prenatal period, focusing on birth and a child’s first years. She returned to London to become a certified nurse-midwife. She then visited Scotland to observe the work of a community midwifery system serving poor, rural areas; its decentralized structure served as a model for the Frontier Nursing Service. Returning to Kentucky in 1925, Breckinridge began the work that would introduce a new type of rural health care system in the United States.
The Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) was established in 1925 as a private charitable organization serving an area of about 700 square miles in southeastern Kentucky. Through her influential connections and speaking engagements, Breckinridge raised over $6 million dollars to support the organization. The staff was initially composed of nurse-midwives trained in England. They traveled on horseback and on foot to provide quality prenatal and childbirth care in the clients’ own homes, functioning as both midwives and family nurses. Clients could pay the low fees in money or goods, and no one was turned away. In the area served, both maternal and infant mortality rates decreased dramatically.
Since 1925, the FNS has registered over 64,000 patients, and in its first 50 years, it “delivered 17,053 babies with only 11 maternal deaths.” An FNS-trained nurse-midwife began the first American school of midwifery in New York in 1932, and the FNS founded its own school in Hyden, Kentucky, in 1939. Breckinridge ran the Frontier Nursing Service until her death in 1965.
Today, the FNS still serves southeastern Kentucky, with a hospital in Hyden, four rural health clinics, a home health agency, and the FNS School of Midwifery and Family Nursing. People have come from around the world to study this model of rural health and social service delivery.
The American College of Nurse Midwives recognizes Breckinridge as “the first to bring nurse-midwifery to the United States” and the Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing as “a leader in nurse-midwifery in the United States and a tribute to the accomplishments of Mary Breckinridge and her contemporaries.” In 1982, Breckinridge was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to the nursing profession in women’s health, community and family nursing, and rural health care delivery.
Edna Adan Maternity Hospital
Photo Credit: Nicholas Kristof / The New York Times
Edna Adan is an inspiring advocate for women and girls, and her maternity hospital in Somaliland is an oasis of healing and care for the country’s women.
Adan was raised in Somaliland in an educated and wealthy family, when the country was a protectorate of the British Empire. When she was 15, a girls’ school opened in Somaliland. Adan went to work there as a student teacher and also received private lessons. She was permitted to sit for exams, in a room separate from the boys, and was the first Somali girl awarded one of a few coveted scholarships to study in Britain. She spent seven years there, studying nursing, midwifery and hospital management.
When she returned home to Somaliland, Adan became the first qualified nurse-midwife in the country and the first Somali woman to drive a car. She later became the first lady when she married Somaliland’s prime minister, Ibrahim Egal. After they divorced, Adan was recruited to join the World Health Organization (WHO), where she held various key positions advocating for the abolition of harmful traditional practices, such as female genital cutting.
But Adan never let go of a life-long dream to build a hospital, so upon retiring from the WHO she sold all of her possessions, including her beloved Mercedes, and returned to Somaliland to make her dream a reality. There was only one available plot of land within the capital of Hargeisa, land which since the civil war had been used as a trash dump. But it was in the poor area of town, near those who needed the hospital the most. So she negotiated with the president, her ex-husband, and obtained the land for her hospital.
When the structure was completed but the roof not yet installed, the project ran out of money. But with assistance from the Friends of Edna’s Hospital and in-kind donations from local merchants, Adan finished construction and the hospital opened in 2002. Since then, Adan has focused her efforts on a new goal: training and dispatching 1,000 qualified midwives throughout Somaliland. Adan continues to work as the hospital’s director and strives to improve the lives and health of women throughout her country.
Helen Varney Burst
Photo Credit: YSN
From her biography on the Yale University School of Nursing Website:
A living legend in the study of nurse-midwifery, Helen Varney Burst, RN, CNM, MSN, DHL (Hon.), FACNM, has been instrumental in advancing the field to new heights during her long and illustrious career. As Professor Emeritus at YSN, where she served as a faculty member in the nurse-midwifery program from 1979 to 2004, Helen is co-originator of the mastery learning modular curriculum design for nurse-midwifery education and also authored the first textbook for nurse-midwives and midwives in the Americas, Varney’s Midwifery, currently in its [fifth] edition.
In addition to her work at YSN, Helen directed nurse-midwifery education programs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Medical University of South Carolina, and served as a consultant to many others. She practiced midwifery in a variety of settings and was service director in two. She served in many important roles in the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM), including two terms as president from 1977 to 1981; and as chair of two national credentialing mechanisms: Certification (1970s) and Accreditation (1990s). She was a member of the founding Board of Governors of the Fellowship of the ACNM (FACNM), is a distinguished fellow, and served as chair of the Fellowship from 2002 to 2008.
Helen received ACNM’s highest award, the Hattie Hemschemeyer Award, in 1982, then thought to be the 50th year of nurse-midwifery education in this country. She is recipient of alumni awards from all of her alma maters: Yale University (MSN, 1963), University of Kansas (BSN, 1961), and Kansas State University (BSHE, 1961). In 1987, she received a Doctor in Humane Letters (honoris causa) from Georgetown University. When she retired in 2004, Yale University established the endowed Helen Varney Chair in Midwifery in the School of Nursing.
Currently, Helen is co-authoring a book on the history of midwifery in the United States and just completed the update of YSN’s A Brief History (which she wrote in 1998 for its 75th anniversary) for the 90th anniversary in 2013.
The Fifth Edition of Varney’s Midwifery is the still the primary textbook used for Certified Nurse Midwives today.
Helen Varney Burst published the History of Nurse-Midwifery/Midwifery Education in 2005.
International Center for Traditional Childbearing
Photo Credit: ShafiaMonroe.com
From her biography on the ICTC website:
Founder and President of International Center for Traditional Childbearing (ICTC) and community activist devoted to infant mortality prevention, breastfeeding promotion, and increasing the number of midwives of color.
In addition to being a Certified Midwife by the Massachusetts Midwives Alliance, she is also a Childbirth Educator, a Doula Trainer, and mother of seven children. Shafia M. Monroe is a health activist, organizer, and international speaker. She holds a BA in sociology, with a concentration in medical sociology, from the University of Massachusetts. Monroe is the founder and President of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing (ICTC); the nation’s first Black midwifery training, breastfeeding promotion and capacity building non-profit organization, headquartered in Portland, Oregon. Shafia is the visionary behind the prominent Black Midwives and Healers Conference that brings midwives and other health care providers together to galvanize resources and implement strategies for reducing infant mortality and strengthening families. In 2006, the Black Midwives and Healers Conference received a Proclamation from Oregon’s Governor Ted Kulongoski. In 2007 she authored the Black Midwives and Prenatal Providers Directory-Essential Recipes and Words of Wisdom for Expecting and New Parents.
Though born in Boston, Massachusetts, she recognizes her Alabama roots and practices the Southern style of healing, using the laying on of hands, herbs and prayer for pregnant women, newborns and their families. As early as seven years of age Shafia realized she had been called to be a healer. At eighteen years old she became involved with the midwifery home birth movement and witnessed the under-representation of women of African descent as midwives and doulas. This was the beginning of her organized outreach efforts, not only to recruit and train Black midwives as a method of reducing infant mortality, but also to encourage women to consider home birth and midwifery services as a tool for empowerment.
Monroe formed the Traditional Childbearing Group in 1976, in part because of the need for better health within Boston’s Black community, but also because White women dominated the field and opportunities for aspiring Black midwives were few and far-between. Monroe was profiled in the book “Granny Midwives and Black Woman Authors” for her ground breaking work in training African American midwives in Boston, Massachusetts, her hometown.
Monroe’s African spiritual and ritual-based practice was also chronicled in a photographic essay in the Boston Globe before her move to Portland in the early 1990s. For over twenty years, Shafia has successfully reached out to Black women from every walk of life and has served as a midwife for thousands of women. Shafia has conducted countless childbirth classes, breastfeeding promotion classes, parenting classes and worked on legislation with others to help bring the services of midwives to all women.
Along with the Creator’s blessing, Monroe attributes her success to incorporating African and Southern outreach traditions; aiding families in communicating with their health care providers for quality health care, infant mortality reduction and sustained breastfeeding. Her midwifery training model has been embraced by members of different backgrounds, cultures and nationalities because of its traditional perspective and its foundation of cultural competency.
As a president and founder she tours the country presenting on an array of subjects to promote midwifery in communities of color, to increase breastfeeding rates and improve birth outcomes in communities of color.
To learn more about the ICTC, visit their website.
Sharon Schindler Rising
Photo Credit: American Academy of Nursing
A certified nurse-midwife, Sharon Schindler Rising, MSN, is a clinical nurse faculty member at YSN, professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, and current president and CEO of the Centering Healthcare Institute, INC (CHI), a non-profit organization focused on improving maternal/child health by transforming care through Centering groups. Sharon developed the graduate nurse-midwifery program and the Childbearing Center at the University of Minnesota.
She has received many honors, including the 2006 YSN Distinguished Alumna Award, the 2007 International Award for Maternal and Child Health by the National Perinatal Association, and the 2008 Purpose Prize by Civic Ventures. In 2010, she was named an Edge Runner by the American Academy of Nursing and received the prestigious Hattie Hemschemeyer Award from the American College of Nurse Midwives.
Sharon Schindler Rising was interviewed by NPR on the Centering model of care: listen to it here.
To learn more about the Centering Model of Care, visit their website.
Sharon Schindler Rising presented at the Mayo Clinic about Centering, the video of which is available here.