Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Mary Penton, June 15, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:01 - Joining the Frontier Nursing Service in Eastern Kentucky / working and training with the Frontier Nursing Service

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Partial Transcript: This is an interview with Mrs. Mary Simmons Penton for the Frontier Nursing Service Oral History Project by Dale Deaton at approximately 4:30 PM on June 15, 1979 at Arlington, Massachusetts.

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about why she decided to join the Frontier Nursing Service. She explains she really liked the environment in Kentucky. She had trained at New England Baptist Hospital before working in the general part of the hospital in Hyden, Kentucky. Then, she decided to take the midwifery course. She took the course on a scholarship basis and then worked for them for one and a half years to pay back the scholarship. She also says she ended up staying for an additional seven years.

Keywords: Jobs; Kentucky; New England Baptist Hospital; People; Scholarships

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Hyden (Ky.); Mary Breckinridge Hospital; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:02:07 - Previous knowledge of Eastern Kentucky before moving there

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Partial Transcript: What was your idea of the area and the people there?

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about her views on what she knew of Eastern Kentucky before working there for Frontier Nursing Service. She said she knew the place was very poor and the people weren't well-educated. She said she did do some research. She explains that until you experience it though, knowing it means very little. She also talks about not knowing what a flood that destroys land really means until moving to Eastern Kentucky.

Keywords: Eastern Kentucky; Experiences; Floods

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Education; Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Midwives; Nurses; Poverty--Appalachian Region

00:03:22 - Brief timeline of working for Frontier Nursing Service

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Partial Transcript: How long was the midwifery training at that time?

Segment Synopsis: Penton gives a brief timeline of her time with the Frontier Nursing Service. She said she worked 6 months in the hospital, then 6 months in the midwifery program, and a year and a half working as a midwife at the clinics to pay back for her scholarship.

Keywords: 6 months; Cottages; General hospital; Scholarships; Six months; Training

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Frontier School of Midwifery and Family Nursing; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:04:15 - First meeting with Mary Breckinridge

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Partial Transcript: Do you recall your first meeting with Mary Breckinridge? The first time that you met her?

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about the founder of Frontier Nursing Service, Mary Breckinridge. She says before she met her she heard a great deal about her. She met Breckinridge with awe at how much respect Breckinridge commanded while still being very warm. She said she had a healthy respect for Breckinridge.

Keywords: Mary Breckinridge; Meetings; Respect; Warmth

Subjects: Breckinridge, Mary, 1881-1965; Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Midwives; Nurses

00:05:36 - Working on preventative health care in Eastern Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: So how soon after you completed the midwifery training did you go to Flat Creek?

Segment Synopsis: Penton discusses her transfer to Flat Creek. She says only about 30% of her work was in the clinic and the rest was traveling. She talks about the interaction of medical practice with public and preventative health in her work. She says most of this knowledge came from trial and error, common sense, and simply being in the homes and understanding the families' needs.

Keywords: Clinics; Common sense; Families; Flat Creek; Red Bird; Talking; Traveling; Trial and error

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses; Preventive health services

00:09:48 - Paying medical bills from Frontier Nursing Service

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Partial Transcript: Did you have to be concerned at all about payments for your services?

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about issues with paying for services. She explains Frontier Nursing Services never emphasized payment for medical care -- they received it no matter what. Sometimes people would have bills that went on for years and would pay it back little by little. Some, she says, would pay by produce or work. Overall, she explains she felt most people did not like not being able to pay. She says a payment for assisting with a birth under $50. She also mentions the change to hospital births with the interference of Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Keywords: Blue Cross Blue Shield; Medical bills; Money; Payments; Produce; Treatments; Working off debt

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:12:22 - Checking up on expectant mothers

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Partial Transcript: How often did you visit, uh, a prospective mother?

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about visiting expectant mothers. She says they came once a month if everything was normal. However, she explains, if things were not okay it was more often. If a patient missed an appointment they went to them without waiting for an explanation in case there was something wrong.

Keywords: Appointments; Clinics; Expectant mothers; Home visits; Medical issues; Once a month

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:13:13 - Suggestions on water and food intake to patients

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Partial Transcript: Did you give any suggestions regarding the preparation of, uh, food?

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about educating residents about food and water. She said some families were very up to date on water safety but some were keeping privies too close to wells and drinking from the creek. She tells a story about a maid getting water out of the creek for the clinic when their water stopped working. She says the maid didn't realize how dangerous that could be. They would give suggestions on water safety. They also worked on people's diet, focusing on expectant mothers and kids. They would show how to and not prepare foods. She talks about how prevalent grease and salt was in people's diets and that only some ever cut down. She says if a woman was swelling and had early toxemia they would put the woman in the hospital and strip her diet to mainly fruits and vegetables and it worked.

Keywords: Creeks; Diets; Drinking water; Grease; Hospitals; Privies; Salt; Suggestions; Wells

Subjects: Education; Food; Food habits--Appalachian Region, Southern; Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses; Water quality

00:16:50 - Payment for nurses and midwives at Frontier Nursing Service

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Partial Transcript: Do you remember what your pay was?

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about her pay for working with Frontier Nursing Service. She says when she first arrived it was about $2,000 a year and when she left in 1965 it was between $4,000 and $5,000 a year. She left as a hospital midwife the last two years.

Keywords: $2000; $4000; $5000; Flat Creek; Hospitals; Jobs; Payment; Wages

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Mary Breckinridge Hospital; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:17:38 - Frontier Nursing Service administration in late 1950s and early 1960s / the death of Mary Breckinridge

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Partial Transcript: At about what time during that period--well let me go back just a little bit.

Segment Synopsis: Penton explains Mary Breckinridge was in charge of the Frontier Nursing Service until the last few years Penton was there as Breckinridge became ill. Helen Brown oversaw FNS for that time period. She also mentions a Dr. Beasley who was the medical director. She remembers going with Mary Breckinridge when the director was hospitalized at University of Kentucky and considered it an honor. She jokes about Breckinridge hating the intercom the hospital used. She explains the director's death came with a lot of sadness especially since dying of bladder cancer was no way for such a distinguished woman to go. However, Penton states that what Breckinridge instilled in people will never die.

Keywords: Bladder cancer; Cancer; Death; Dr. Beasley; Illness; Intercoms; Legacies; Medical directors; Sadness

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Hospitals--Administration; Mary Breckinridge; Nurses; University of Kentucky

00:21:42 - Moving back home to Massachusetts

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Partial Transcript: Wh--was there a sort of a transition period at her death?

Segment Synopsis: Penton explains she left to move back home and help with her mother who had had a heart attack. She doesn't think Mary Breckinridge even knew she was leaving. She said moving home she decided she was going to go to college and after graduating got a job as a day supervisor and developing in service education in helping with nursing administration in 1970.

Keywords: College; Family commitments; Hospitals; Jobs; Leaving; Massachusetts; Moving

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Hospitals--Administration; Mary Breckinridge; Mary Breckinridge Hospital

00:23:58 - Transition from Mary Breckinridge to Helen Browne / the creation of the new hospital

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Partial Transcript: When she died--

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about the transition of the Frontier Nursing Service under Helen Browne after Mary Breckinridge died. She said the transition was easy and smooth beyond missing Breckinridge because Browne was so capable. She mentions going back a year later after leaving to help with the hospital and says things were really progressing - especially with the new hospital being built. She says the plans had started to be drawn up while she was still there.

Keywords: Building plans; Capable; Directors; Helen Browne ("Brownie"); Hospitals; Transitions; Visiting

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Hospitals--Administration; Mary Breckinridge; Mary Breckinridge Hospital

00:26:05 - Horses versus Jeeps as transportation

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Partial Transcript: You said earlier--you mentioned mules and horses.

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about how much she enjoyed riding horses to get back and forth for work (all the clinics had them). However, she said there was a move to jeeps in her last years and that they were much more efficient.

Keywords: Appointments; Cars; Clinics; Efficiency; Home visits; Horseback; Jeeps; Work

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Horses; Midwives; Nurses

00:26:46 - Flat Creek Committee activities and meetings

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Partial Transcript: Was there a Flat Creek committee at the time--

Segment Synopsis: Penton discusses the activities of the Flat Creek Committee. She explains it had little oversight on day to day operations, just big issues like reconstruction. She describes some of the people on the committee saying there were 40 or 50 people on it. She mentions their yearly meeting that was also a big dinner put on by the nurses. She says some large issues were also discussed like finances for the next year, any lasting problems, and major projects. She said they were great fun since everyone knew each other so well.

Keywords: Committee members; Day to day issues; Dinners; Finances; Flat Creek; Flat Creek Committee; Fun; Locals; Major issues; Yearly meetings

Subjects: Food; Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Nurses

00:31:09 - Contraceptive practices in use with Frontier Nursing Service

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Partial Transcript: In your work in the Flat Creek area or, or while you were at Red Bird--

Segment Synopsis: Penton discusses the family planning practices Frontier Nursing Service did. She remembers helping Dr. Beasley with the first IUDs in her last years there and that they were a part of a birth control study with Dr. John Rock. Most women in the community were told about contraceptives, but she says you knew which families were against it. She says the younger women were very receptive to the idea of birth control but it was the women who had several children who were the most receptive. Many did well on the birth control. She mentions doing tubal ligations before the pill often. The worry with pills was the patients remembering to take the pill at the same time everyday. She's not sure what Mary Breckinridge thought about contraception, but she never stopped the nurses or doctors from giving it to patients. Penton does explain there were limits to who could have tubal ligations (only after a woman had had five or six births). There weren't many vasectomies done. She says the men weren't crazy about them.

Keywords: Birth control; Birth control pills; Births; Contraception; Dr. Beasley; Dr. Rock; Family planning; Flat Creek; Intrauterine devices (IUDs); Patients; Red Bird; Studies; Tubal ligations; Vasectomies

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Mary Breckinridge; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses; Women

00:37:10 - Breast feeding versus bottle at Frontier Nursing Service

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Partial Transcript: Well now, during the, the '50s, especially during the years of the '60s, was when the push came in for Enfamil and all--

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about breast feeding versus bottle feeding. She says that the trend moved from breast feeding to bottle feeding by the time she left. She says Frontier Nursing Service would recommend bottle feeding if the baby wasn't getting enough milk from the mother or there were other problems. She says she was really sold on breast feeding herself, and that was always her recommendation unless there were circumstances which prevented that. She found the trend in Eastern Kentucky from breast feeding to bottle was somewhat opposite of the direction the nation moved towards.

Keywords: Babies; Bottles; Breastfeeding; Circumstances; Eastern Kentucky; Enfamil; Formulas; Recommendations; Supplements; Trends

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:39:18 - Birthing trends and practices of Frontier Nursing Service

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Partial Transcript: With most of the deliveries being at the patient's home, was there a ballpark figure on the average numbers of hours that the patient was in labor?

Segment Synopsis: Penton talks about the births she attended saying the average time in labor was in line with the national averages. The drugs they used were Demerol, Zincovite, silver nitrate, Phenergan, and if the labor went really long a small amount of morphine. She said the deliveries at home dropped significantly and moved towards hospital births by the time she left.

Keywords: Babies; Birthing trends; Births; Demerol; Drugs; Home births; Hospital births; Labor; Morphine; Phenergan; Silver nitrate; Zincovite

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Mary Breckinridge Hospital; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:42:26 - Working as a midwife in the Frontier Nursing Service hospital / changes brought to medical community by the introduction of insurance

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Partial Transcript: When you went to the, uh, the hospital as head of--

Segment Synopsis: Penton discusses her move from working at Flat Creek to the hospital. She says it was longer hours and all midwifery when she worked at the hospital. She would supervise students, teach, and assist the doctor. She says she was reluctant to change positions, but finally gave in and liked the increased responsibility unless the medical director was away. She mentions the change insurance brought - especially when they would pay for hospital deliveries. The insurance companies actually thought Frontier Nursing Service's fees for deliveries were too low, so the payment for hospital deliveries increased as a result.

Keywords: Deliveries; Fees; Home births; Hospital births; Hospitals; Insurance; Long hours; Medical directors; Money; Payments; Responsibility; Students; Supervising; Teaching

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Insurance companies; Mary Breckinridge Hospital; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:45:26 - Family planning first included as a part of midwifery

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Partial Transcript: Who were the people that worked in the family planning clinic?

Segment Synopsis: Penton discusses the fact that family planning was incorporated into the midwifery clinic. She explains all midwives were taught the various methods, but it was just beginning to become a medical practice while she was there. She said two midwives in particular, Carolyn Banghardt and Molly Lee, were involved in family planning.

Keywords: Birth control; Birth control pills; Clinics; Conception; Condoms; Contraception; Family planning; Intrauterine devices (IUDs); Methods; Trained

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses

00:46:39 - Dating and associating with locals as a Frontier Nursing Service nurse

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Partial Transcript: Sort of to switch completely out of the professional field and into the personal.

Segment Synopsis: Penton discusses the dating life of a nurse at Frontier Nursing Service. She says there were unwritten rules about associating with locals including avoiding moonshine, politics, religion, and stayed away from dating. FNS promoted a more professional relationship with locals, but most nurses got out in the community and did things. However, not many dated there with the busy schedules, although some did. They were not reprimanded - one even married. Penton says she never did because of her busy schedule and she wasn't that interested at that point in her life.

Keywords: Associating; Communities; Dating; Friends; Locals; Moonshine; Personal; Professional

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Kentucky--Politics and government; Marriage; Nurses; Religion

00:49:08 - Speaking and attending meetings and fundraisers

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Partial Transcript: Th, this would probably apply to the period that you were, uh, the head nurse midwife at the hospital more so than when you were at Flat Creek, but did you attend any board of trustee or board of governor meetings?

Segment Synopsis: Penton discusses attending board meetings twice and that the atmosphere was very friendly but professional. She also says she only spoke at meetings like those or fundraising events rarely. She explains it was because she was so busy being the head midwife at the hospital.

Keywords: Board of trustees; Business; Committee meetings; Fundraisers; Professional; Speaking

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Mary Breckinridge Hospital

00:50:43 - Observation of Frontier Nursing Service by other volunteer organizations

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Partial Transcript: Could you discuss some things that you saw at FNS, some things FNS did that, uh--services that FNS provided and so forth that are not provided elsewhere that you're aware of?

Segment Synopsis: Penton discusses the other volunteer organizations like Peace Corps and VISTA who would send their volunteers to observe the Frontier Nursing Service. She feels FNS is a demonstration to a lot of organizations between people working crazy hours, low salary and being so dedicated to their work. She found the Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers to be very fine people and there was little resentment towards them from locals. She says the observation of outside organization volunteers really picked up as she left.

Keywords: Demonstrations; Information; Observation; Organizations; VISTA; Volunteers

Subjects: Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Nurses; Peace Corps (U.S.); Volunteers in Service to America

00:53:12 - Praise regarding Frontier Nursing Service, Mary Breckinridge, and the residents of Eastern Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Is there anything else, an event or anything else that I haven't asked you about that you would like to mention?

Segment Synopsis: Penton speaks to her gratefulness at being able to have worked for the Frontier Nursing Service. She says they had a top notch example of nurse practitioner work between principles learned and dealing with all kinds of people. She explains she has great respect for the FNS workers and the locals. She says the locals sometimes thought they, themselves were less intelligent than others, but she found that many were very smart and simply lacked the opportunity for an education. She also speaks of Mary Breckinridge and how she instilled principles and was very compassionate. She says the FNS workers taught the locals and the locals taught them. She finishes by calling her time as FNS "a real experience."

Keywords: Education; Intelligence; Locals; Nurse practitioners; Thanks

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Social life and customs; Frontier Nursing Service, Inc.; Mary Breckinridge; Midwifery; Midwives; Nurses