It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words and it was the photographic genius of the late W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay, “Nurse Midwife” published in a 1951 edition of Life Magazine that grasped my attention and introduced me to the late, great Maude E. Callen, a nurse midwife.
Callen was born almost 40 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in Quincy, Florida and was one of 13 children who would become an orphan by age 6. Quincy is located in Gadsen County and to this very day, has one of the worse infant mortality rates in Florida. It’s a wonder that Callen survived her birth and miraculously ended up in the home of her uncle, William J. Gunn whose story is equally fascinating because he was a former slave and carriage driver that became one of the first African American physicians in Florida. His medical school education at Meharry School of Medicine was paid for by his former employer, Dr. George W. Betton, a white physician.
Callen graduated from Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University (FAMU) the year her uncle died and completed her nursing education at Tuskegee Institute. She later trained at the Georgia Infirmary that was started in 1832 and became the first hospital for African Americans in the nation. It was also one of the first institutions to train African American nurses.
Callen eventually arrived in Pineville, South Carolina in 1923 which was one of the poorest towns in Berkeley County. As recent as 2010, it only has approximately 2,000 people who earn an average of $20,000 a year. Callen was one of only 9 nurse midwives in the entire state that delivered babies and it is estimated that she delivered approximately 600 to 800 babies during her career. She faced challenges most of us can’t imagine such as delivering babies by kerosene lamps although there was clearly electricity by the 1950’s; having patients arrive in oxcarts to her home in the middle of the night and performing home births to women in a 400-square mile radius of muddy roads.
Her selfless deeds did not go unnoticed. After Smith’s photo essay was published, people donated $22,000 to her practice and a clinic was built in her honor. When President Reagan invited her to the White House, she allegedly said “You can’t just call me up and ask me to be somewhere. I’ve got to do my job.”Callen did that “job” until she retired in 1971 and continued to volunteer until she died at the age of 91.
Callen may have never made it to the White House as a guest of President Ronald Reagan but she is definitely an American hero.
I encourage everyone to view Smith’s wonderful photographic essay and be inspired.