When Maude Callen decided to become a nurse midwife in 1923, she did not choose an easy path for an African American woman living in the South. Orphaned at six and raised by an uncle who was the first African American doctor in Tallahassee, Florida, Callen was determined to bring healthcare to those who cannot access it. For over fifty years, she delivered hundreds of children, cared for the elderly and educated midwifery students in a 400-mile area in rural South Carolina known as “Hell Hole Swamp.”
For many of Callen’s patients, she was far more than a nurse. She performed all the regular duties of a doctor, from administering tuberculosis shots to setting broken bones. She did all this work in makeshift clinics in her own home and in churches throughout Berkeley County, South Carolina.
Callen’s work was brought to national attention in 1951 with the publication of W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay, “Nurse Midwife,” in Life Magazine. Readers were so inspired by the story of this unsung hero of American healthcare, that they sent over $20,000 in donations to help Callen build a proper clinic.