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Maude Callen: Nurse-Midwife provided medical care to the poorest in her community

OH Fast Facts for Maude Callen

Maude Callen sits by lantern light, as she treats a small Black boy around age five
Maude Callen, Life (1951)

In the mid-twentieth-century American South, Black women had limited access to medical services and maternal care. Many gave birth at home with the aid of a lay midwife, who provided healthcare in areas with few doctors or other medical facilities. Maude Callen was a nurse-midwife who helped women safely give birth at home, held clinics, and made house calls to those who otherwise lacked care, providing a vital service to her underserved community.

Maude Evelyn Daniel Callen was born November 8, 1898 in Quincy, Florida to her parents, Harrison and Amanda Daniel. She was one of thirteen sisters. Maude was orphaned at the age of seven, and went to live with an uncle in Tallahassee, Florida, Dr. William J. Gunn. Dr. Gunn (1855-1922) was one of the first Black doctors in the state of Florida, and likely encouraged Maude in the field of medicine.

Maude married William Dewer Callen in 1921, and graduated from Florida A&M in 1922. She then completed a rigorous one-year nurse-midwife program at Tuskegee University in Alabama. In 1923, Maude and William moved to Pineville in Berkeley County, South Carolina, where she was funded as a missionary by the Episcopalian Church.

Berkeley County, South Carolina was home to many formerly enslaved families who worked as sharecroppers and timber farmers. The people who lived in this area were very poor and had extremely limited access to healthcare, education, and other vital services. Berkeley County was also home to an area referred to as “Hell Hole Swamp,” which, due to its remoteness, was the location of a 1920’s Prohibition moonshine outfit run by Al Capone supplier, Benjamin Villeponteaux. It is in this region that Maude and William Callen made their home, and where they lived the rest of their lives.

Maude Callen consoles a weeping man who was left unable to walk after a stroke.
Maude Callen, Life (1951)

When Maude moved to Pineville in 1923, she was one of only nine midwives. Doing much more than obstetrics, Maude set up a clinic out of her home, treating the ill, disabled, or people in need of other medical services. She quickly became indispensable to the community, doing much more than medical practice. In an area so in need of basic services, Maude was the sole teacher for many children, teaching them to read and write. Maude travelled extensively to make house calls throughout the county; she worked in a roughly 400 square-mile area, putting on an average of 36,000 miles a year in her car.

After the 1935 Social Security Act, Maude was hired as a public health nurse for the county. It was then that she established a training and continuing education program for Black women looking to become midwives themselves.

Maude Callen holds a toddler while talking to a room full of Black midwives in training
Maude Callen, Midwife Clinic, Life (1951)

Black nurse midwives - or, prior to regulation, “granny midwives” - were a legacy system of lay midwives that served areas with critically limited access to health care services. These women were spiritually called to midwifery, and there was an extensive system of apprenticeship in lieu of a more formalized education. Maude's clinics trained a new generation of Black midwives in the latest medical practices and treatments, creating a trusted and skilled group of lay practitioners to care for those with limited medical access.

Maude Callen treats a man behind a white curtain in a large room full of people waiting to be seen by her.
Maude Callen, County Clinic, Life (1951)

In 1951, Life Magazine published a photo essay on Maude by legendary photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith. Smith followed Maude through her day as she delivered children, helped people find health resources, held traveling clinics, and made house visits to the critically ill and disabled in her community. As a result of this feature in Life, Maude was able to raise over $20,000 to build a clinic in Berkeley County. She operated out of the clinic until her retirement in 1971 at the age of 73. But Maude never completed retired. When Charles Kuralt profiled her in 1983 for his “On The Road” series, she was still delivering meals and checking in on the people in her community.

Maude passed away in 1990 at the age of 92. She was estimated to have delivered between 600-800 babies in Berkeley County. She was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame, and received the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor granted in South Carolina.

The move in the 20th Century to a more medicalized system of giving birth helped to reduce the overall rates of infant and maternal mortality. However, there is a growing recognition that lay midwifery had distinct advantage for helping Black women give birth and to provide trusted medical advice. Because of implicit bias against Black people in the medical system, a history of mistreatment and experimentation, and other complicating factors, many people in the Black community do not trust doctors and medical practitioners in general. As a result of many of these factors, Black women, in particular, have much higher maternal mortality rates than while women. Recent research has shown that relying on lay practitioners, such as midwives, to pass on medical advice to expecting and new mothers helped to increase the rates of good outcomes, treatments after birth, and rates of vaccinations.


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