Mary on Horseback Summary

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

Mary Breckinridge was a nurse who established better health care in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky by starting the Frontier Nursing Service. Learn more about her in this lesson, which will summarize 'Mary On Horseback' by Rosemary Wells.

In Need of Help

Have you ever been sick or hurt and needed to go to the hospital? Nowadays, we have plenty of hospitals and doctors to choose from if we need medical care, but it wasn't always like this. In fact, in the early 1920's in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, people had very few medical options. Until, that is, Mary Breckinridge came to this part of Kentucky.

In the nonfiction book Mary On Horseback, Rosemary Wells tells us three different stories from different people's points of view about Mary and how she started the Frontier Nursing Service, a system of nurses, clinics, and a hospital that would help the people living in the mountains get quality healthcare. This system ended up becoming a ''model for rural nursing services worldwide.'' Let's learn more about this amazing woman and her organization by summarizing the stories in this book.

''Mountain Medicine''

Our first story is told from the viewpoint of a young boy named John Hawkins. It begins when John's father crushes his leg at work and there doesn't seem to be anything to do but cut the leg off. But John's family is surprised when a woman arrives on horseback instead of the local doctor they were expecting. She introduces herself as Mary Breckinridge, a nurse, and wastes no time getting down to business cleaning Pa's leg in order to save it.

The next morning, Mamma tries to keep John from going with the group taking Pa to the hospital, but John sneaks out and follows them. John stays with Mary at her house while his father is taken care of in the hospital. Some of her fellow nurses help him start learning to read and count. One night, Mary shows him her blueprints for a clinic she wants to build. John memorizes those plans, and when his father is all better and they return home, John heads to a nearby pasture. There, he uses large stones to map out Mary's clinic plans so they'll be ready for her when she comes back.

''Ireland of Scotland''

Our next story is from 19-year-old Maggie from Scotland. Maggie answers Mary's newspaper ad looking for nurses to move to Kentucky and become nurses on horseback. Mary has an important job for Maggie. A dangerous illness called diphtheria is running rampant through the mountain population. The vaccine is expensive. The state of Kentucky will give them the medicine, but only if they can give them a count of every single person living in the mountains by September. Mary wants to have a clinic set up to inoculate, or give the vaccine shots, by the beginning of October. She needs Maggie to do a population count.

At first, many people don't take Maggie seriously because she's so young. When she visits the Gibbs family to treat four-year-old Star, who has diphtheria, Star's mother says her husband doesn't approve of needles. She pretends she doesn't know Maggie is giving Star a shot. When their father gets home, he insists nobody else will be getting the shot - especially from such a ''pretty young thing.'' Maggie leaves the next morning, and Star's older sister Lavender, ''bright-eyed and smiley, cheeks warm from the sun,'' makes sure to say a special goodbye.

Later, while telling Mary what happened, Maggie realizes it wasn't the sun making Lavender's cheeks warm, it was a fever! Maggie hurries back to find Lavender ''lying white and still on her corncob mattress.'' Her father tries to object to the shot again, but Lavender's mother stands up to him and insists the whole family get the vaccine. This small victory helps Maggie regain confidence, and she is able to finish the count.

''How Many Stars In My Crown?''

Our final story is Pearl's, a young girl whose mother died after giving birth to twins. Pearl's dad doesn't know what to do, so he brings the babies and Pearl to Mary's new hospital. He asks the nurses to help the babies, who have barely eaten, and teach Pearl how to care for them. Pearl hasn't said a word since her mother died, but she enjoys listening to the nurses.

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