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52 Nurse Profiles with Maria SmiliosMy Nurse InfluencersYear of the Nurse and the Midwife

#2 of 52 nurse profiles: Mary Breckinridge

By: Robin Cogan, MEd, RN, NCSN, and Maria Smilios

In celebration of 2020 The Year of the Nurse and Midwife, author Maria Smilios is dedicating a weekly column about nurses whose stories must be shared.  I am thankful that Maria has invited The Relentless School Nurse to share this important initiative with our readers!

This is week #2 of the 52 week series in this year long study of nurses and midwives. Mary Breckinridge is this week’s featured nurse.

Night had fallen.

The young woman secured the newborn in the leather saddle bag and began to navigate her horse deeper into the woods of Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains. On a good night, the terrain was unstable, wet, rocky, with brambles and narrow winding passages, but tonight, there was a light rain, making it slippery and marshy, in places treacherous. She was undeterred and determined to reach her destination, Hyden Hospital, before the rain grew heavier and the baby’s breathing grew worse.

As she moved through the woods, keeping the horse’s gait measured, she had nothing but time and her thoughts. The road to this moment had been long. It was one her parents didn’t imagine for their daughter. But, from a young age, Mary Carson Breckinridge was her own person: charismatic, iron-willed, and eager to carve out a life on her terms.

Born in 1881 in Memphis, TN to a politically influential family with a history of statesmen, members of Congress, ambassadors, and her grandfather, John Breckinridge, a U.S. vice-president, Mary enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Her father was the U.S. ambassador to Czar Nicholas II of Russia, enabling him to give her a sophisticated education that included private tutors, finishing school, travel, and attendance at historic political affairs—in the Spring of 1896, he took the family to the Coronation  of the Czar, a trip that altered the course of Mary’s life.

In the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral, 15 year-old Mary watched as Nicholas crowned himself with the Great Imperial Crown of Russia, a magnificent piece of handiwork adorned with 4,936 diamonds that glistened in the grand cathedral like tiny pinpoints of starlight. But, unlike the tens of thousands who turned out to celebrate, young Mary wasn’t impressed.

Instead, something else had captivated her: the foundling asylum she had visited the previous day with her mother. There, she saw rows and rows of cribs full of rescued babies, some came from the streets of Moscow and others were left at the asylum door. She held them, stroking their pale faces, glimpsing in them the bitterness and blight of poverty and shame. Deep inside she felt a maternal ache to keep them safe. The feeling never left her.

As the years passed, her ambitions grew, and she longed to forge her own pathway and establish herself like the men in her family, but the turn of the 20th century wanted little to do with women and their dreams: Women became wives then mothers. Mary would be no exception.

*All photos by Marvin Breckinridge

To read the entire profile on Mary, please go here, and stay tuned for next week’s profile on Salaria Kea: From Harlem to the Spanish Civil War. To read past profiles, please visit our My Nurse Influencer page.


Robin Cogan, MEd, RN, NCSN is a Nationally Certified School Nurse (NCSN), currently in her 19th year as a New Jersey school nurse in the Camden City School District. She serves on several national boards including The American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine (AFFIRM), a gun violence prevention research non-profit organization and the National Board of Certification for School Nurses (NBCSN). Robin is the Legislative Chair for the New Jersey State School Nurses Association (NJSSNA). She is proud to be a Johnson & Johnson School Health Leadership Fellow and past Program Mentor.

She has been recognized in her home state of New Jersey and nationally for her community-based initiative called “The Community Café: A Conversation That Matters.” Robin is the honored recipient of multiple awards for her work in school nursing and population health. These awards include 2019 National Association of School Nurses (NASN) President’s Award; 2018 NCSN School Nurse of the Year; 2017 Johnson & Johnson School Nurse of the Year; and the New Jersey Department of Health 2017 Population Health Hero Award. Robin serves as faculty in the School Nurse Certificate Program at Rutgers University-Camden School of Nursing, where she teaches the next generation of school nurses. She was presented the 2018 Rutgers University – Camden Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Award for Part-time Faculty.

Robin writes a weekly blog called The Relentless School Nurse. You can also follow her on Twitter at @RobinCogan.

The views and opinions expressed by My Nurse Influencer contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

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