The year is 1930, the place a remote cabin in eastern Kentucky. A haggard man, whose wife had died in childbirth, bundles up sickly young twins and leaves his older son to watch the log cabin. An older daughter holds one baby, the father holds the other, and they set off on horseback for a long trip on mountainous trails to the new hospital. He takes his only cow to pay for the care of what he called "the least-uns."
"The babies were skin and bones when they arrived," recalls Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, "They're now grown up and have children of their own."
The story of the children's survival is captured in a remarkable film made that summer by Marvin Patterson, then a recent graduate of Vassar College who had gone to Kentucky to help her cousin Mary with a new nursing program. Marvin Patterson now lives in an elegant Washington home and copies of her film are now in the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. She and the film came together again one night this week when she showed it to a group of friends. Called "The Forgotten Frontier," the film is a wonderful testament to the grit and compassion, the spirit of neighborly help woven into the fabric of America's history.
It is the story of the Frontier Nursing Service, founded by Mary Breckinridge, a descendant of Vice President John C. Breckinridge. Mary Breckinridge had lost two children while living in a rural area. Serving as a nurse in France at the end of the war, she became convinced that the British nurse-midwives had talents that were uniquely suited to rural health care. She decided to bring nurse-midwives to care for the frontier mothers and families of Eastern Kentucky.
She recruited English nurses and sent American nurses to England for midwifery training, introducing the concept of professionally trained nurse-midwives in America. The FNS opened its first clinic in Hyden, the county seat of Leslie County, in 1925. By Christmas of that year, Mary Breckinridge had finished construction of a log cabin that was her home and administrative headquarters until she died in 1965, at the age of 84.
In the early years, there were about 20 nurses riding in the mountains, crossing rivers on horseback, delivering babies and caring for families. They set up six nursing centers for a 700-square-mile area. In 1928, Marvin Patterson became the service's first courier, traveling on horseback, helping transport people and supplies and doing whatever needed to be done.
In 1929, at her cousin's request, she went to New York for a year to study cinematography. She returned to make a silent film that, using the nurses and their patients, recreated the stories of the FNS's work. Nurses are shown introducing vaccines. One nurse, Betty Lester, is shown going to help a shooting victim, gathering up men to help her as she rides along. When they get to the victim, the men chop down two trees, take off their jackets and fashion a stretcher on which they relayed the man on a 16-mile trip to the hospital. A surgeon from Hazard traveled on horseback 23 miles to operate. Two years later, the man was shot dead in a family feud.
In 1939, when the outbreak of World War II drew English nurses home, Mary Breckinridge started the Frontier Graduate School of Midwifery, which since has graduated 598 family nurses and nurse-midwives, who have worked around the world. Until the advent of Medicaid and Medicare, the FNS depended solely on private philanthropy. It raised nearly $1 million this year. It has delivered 19,450 babies, losing only 11 mothers in childbirth, and none since 1951. From its earliest years, the infant mortality rate among families it served was under 3 percent. It has helped give 500,000 inoculations against smallpox, typhoid fever, diphtheria and measles.
Betty Lester received the Order of the British Empire for her work. Mary Breckinridge was installed this summer in the nursing hall of fame. Her successor became a commander of the British Empire. Marvin Patterson got into photojournalism and was a CBS correspondent during World War II. She married Jefferson Patterson, a foreign service officer who was ambassador to Uruguay before retiring in 1958. She never lost her interest in the Frontier Nursing Service, serving on its board of governors for 20 years, including 10 as chairman.
She now is its honorary chairman, helping to link us to one of the the fine adventures in America's past.