Mary Breckinridge: The Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia

By Weaver, Karol K. | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Mary Breckinridge: The Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia


Weaver, Karol K., Nursing History Review


Mary Breckinridge: The Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia By Melanie Beals Goan (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2008) (348 pages; $45.00 cloth)

Melanie Beals Goan's Mary Breckinridge: The Frontier Nursing Service and Rural Health in Appalachia traces the life of Mary Breckinridge and her establishment of the Frontier Nursing Service in rural Kentucky. Goan does a fine job placing Breckinridge, her life, her ideas, and her achievements in their historical and cultural contexts. The author admirably shows how this historical case study of Mary Breckinridge and the Frontier Nursing Service enlarges our understanding of Appalachia, social reform, and scientific medicine in the twentieth century.

Coming from a long line of prestigious American leaders, Mary Breckinridge established the Frontier Nursing Service, an organization designed to meet the medical, emotional, and social needs of the residents of rural Kentucky. Originally intended to serve women and children, the Frontier Nursing Service soon offered medical care to the men of Leslie County too. Breckinridge emphasized the right of every human being to health care, realized that nurses had important roles in providing that care, and appreciated the wisdom of preventive medicine (252).

Goan's biography of Breckinridge and her institutional history of the Frontier Nursing Service pay close attention to the historical and cultural context from which Breckinridge and the organization came. Goan recognizes that Breckinridge's drive to provide medical care was shaped by both maternalist philosophy and the ideal of the New Woman. Goan takes great pains to elucidate Breckinridge's class and racial bias; she acknowledges that such bias emerged from Breckinridge's upbringing by parents who promoted the Lost Cause of the South. Goan maps out how Breckinridge navigated the difficulties that the Frontier Nursing Service experienced as a result of events like the Great Depression and World War II.

In addition to contextualizing Breckinridge's achievements as well as her shortcomings, Goan succeeds in placing the story of Breckinridge and the Frontier Nursing Service into the historiography of Appalachia, social reform, and scientific medicine. Goan says that her study is "another attempt to complicate . …

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