Our Nurse Heroines

March is Women’s History month where we pay tribute to the generations of women whose commitment to nature and the planet have proved invaluable to society.

Here at AWHONN we honor five nurses who contribution to women and newborn’s health has improved outcomes and saved lives through countless generations.


Martha Ballard (1734 – 1812)
Martha was a midwife who delivered 816 babies between 1785 and 1812 traveling by canoe and horse to care for women and their newborns. Ballard kept a diary of her medical practice for 27 years (almost 10,000 entries!) and is credited for the unparalleled recording of early American history of women’s health and the nature of women’s work at that time. Her diaries were made into a book  A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812 which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and was turned into a PBS series.


BRECKINMary Breckinridge (1881 – 1965)
An American nurse-midwife, Mary was one of the first to open family care centers which provided a new model of rural health care. She 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 began her family centers in Appalachia and founded the Frontier Nursing Service in 1925 as a way to help others in far-flung areas of the U.S., where medical care was scarce. She and the other staff 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 and no one was turned away. In the area served, both maternal and infant mortality rates decreased dramatically.

MargaretSanger-Underwood.LOCMargaret Sanger (1879 – 1966)
The founder of the American Birth Control League, the organization that later became Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger was a nurse who worked to provide women with adequate access to birth control. Margaret opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916. After seeing the straits that women found themselves due to lack of birth control, she was outspoken about birth control as a way for women to find equal footing by being in charge of their health and wellness by being able to decide when the best time for pregnancy was.


Nurse-CallenMaude Callen (1940s-1971)
A nurse-midwife, Maude devoted her life to nursing in some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the southern United States. Teaching countless other women in her community to be midwives, Maude delivered between 600-800 babies herself and “saved so many others through her work, and who firmly, compassionately delivered into the world so many children who, without her intervention, might well have died at or shortly after birth?” In December 1951, Life magazine published a twelve-page photographic essay of Callen’s work. On publication of the photo-essay, readers donated more than $20,000 to support Callen’s work in Pineville. As a result, the Maude E. Callen Clinic opened in 1953.

CelesteCeleste Phillips
Celeste R. Phillips, EdD, RN is an internationally recognized leader in family-centered maternity care. Dr. Phillips is passionate about the philosophy that he childbearing process belongs with the family. She worked extensively to introduce the single room maternity care concept to hospitals and physicians throughout the United States.


These nurses and midwives exemplify the virtues of nursing. AWHONN has recently released its Nursing Care Women and Babies Deserve poster that puts nursing ethics into action for perinatal, neonatal and women’s health nurses. Nursing Care Women and Babies Deserve provides nurses with core elements of ethical nursing practice for our specialty and corresponding examples of ethical practice in action. Download your free copy. 


  • Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812.” Vintage Books, Random House Publishers, 1991. ISBN 0-679-73376-0.
  • Rogers, Richard P. and Kahn-Leavitt, Laurie. “A Midwife’s Tale.” PBS film, 1998.
  • Campbell, Anne G. (Summer 1984). “Mary Breckinridge and the American Committee for Devastated France: The Foundations of the Frontier Nursing Service”. The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 82 (3): 263.
  • http://www.truthaboutnursing.org/press/pioneers/breckinridge.html
  • https://www.awhonn.org/?page=AvailableGrants
  • https://cydc.org/our-programs/callen-lacey-center/
  • http://time.com/26789/w-eugene-smith-life-magazine-1951-photo-essay-nurse-midwife/

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