Mary D. Osborn was born in Ohio and graduated from Akron City Hospital School of Nursing in 1902. She subsequently worked at the hospital and by 1906 occupied the post of assistant director of nursing. Her intense interest in maternal nursing led her in 1912 to New York City, where she became assistant director of nursing at Women’s Hospital. Soon thereafter, a charitable organization asked for help, and she became the nursing director of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. Later known as the Community Service Society, the group sought to reduce maternal and infant deaths among the city’s poor. Osborn also became active in the American Red Cross, particularly its outreach to the poor. During this period she worked closely with Harry Hopkins, an American Red Cross leader who went on to play a major role in the relief effort in Mississippi after the 1927 flood.
Osborn first came to Mississippi in 1921 to observe granny midwives, most of whom had little formal education but who played a major role in maternity care in the state. Most of the midwives were African American, and records indicate that they were delivering approximately 80 percent of the state’s African American babies. Osborn did not plan to remain in Mississippi for long, but the American Red Cross recommended her to the State Board of Health for a planned maternal health program. She became first the supervisor of the Division of Maternal Child Health and within a year the supervisor of public health nursing. She spent the rest of her career leading Mississippi’s nurses in public health efforts.
At the time of Osborn’s arrival, Mississippi’s death rates for mothers and infants were among the highest in the country. In 1917 almost 10 percent of all babies died, as did more than four hundred mothers. Osborn viewed the granny midwife as a significant member of the team who could help save some of those lives. She knew that the midwives varied in education and skill but also recognized their valued role in poor communities, especially those without doctors. Her goal became clear within a year of taking the health department position. The midwives needed to be educated and trained in modern methods to help lower death rates. By 1922 Osborn had written a Manual for Midwives, which became the handbook for all midwives practicing in Mississippi. She then prepared public health nurses to travel throughout the state, training groups of midwives.
Osborn hoped to build a network of public health nurses and midwives, creating midwives’ clubs and instituting badges for trained midwives. As the groups grew and matured, Osborn added further education to increase skills in basic hygiene and health management. The midwives ran demonstrations and became models in their communities in areas such as home care for the sick and immunization education. As the programs in Mississippi grew, Osborn’s staff of nurses grew from 7 in 1921 to more than 160 when she left the department in 1946, and by 1950 the infant death rate had dropped to just 3.6 percent.
Osborne resigned from the State Department of Health in June 1946 and died on 7 July after a short illness. Her picture hangs in the department’s headquarters, and in 1996 she was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in recognition of her service to Mississippi mothers, children, and midwives.
- Mississippi Nurses Association Historical Committee, Passing the Flame: The History of the Mississippi Nurses’ Association, 1911–1986 (1986)
- Public Health Nursing Papers, Mary D. Osborn Biographical Materials, Mississippi Department of Archives and History