Maude E. Callen was a nurse and midwife in the South Carolina Lowcountry (Berkeley County) for over 60 years. She became famous when her work was brought to national attention in W. Eugene Smith’s now classic photo essay, “Nurse Midwife”, published in Life Magazine in December 1951.

Maude E. Callen was born in Florida, in 1898, one of thirteen sisters. She was orphaned by the age of six and then was raised in the home of her uncle, Dr. William J. Gunn, a physician, in Tallahassee, Florida. Following her marriage to William D. Callen in 1921, she graduated from Florida A & M University in 1922 and then completed her nursing course at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the Infirmary of Savannah Georgia. They moved to Pineville, SC where she set up practice for what was intended to be a temporary position that lasted a lifetime. She was one of only nine nurse-midwives, at the time, in the area.

Callen operated a community clinic out of her home, which was miles from any hospital. She provided in-home services to “an area of some 400 square miles veined with muddy roads”, serving as ‘doctor, dietician, psychologist, bail-goer and friend’ to thousands of desperately poor patients. It is estimated she delivered between six hundred and eight hundred babies in her years of practice. In addition to providing medical services, Callen also taught women from the community to be midwives.

In December 1951, Life magazine published a twelve-page photographic essay of Callen’s work, by the celebrated photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith. Smith spent weeks with Callen at her clinic and on her rounds. The photos are visually arresting, both as a haunting record of the time but also as ongoing testament to the power of nursing and midwifery to effect social change. The Life website currently displays some 40 photos, some which were never published in the original essay. I thoroughly recommend them to anyone who may be interested in the history of nursing or the deep South. On publication of the photo-essay, readers donated more than $20,000 to support Callen’s work in Pineville. As a result, the Maude E. Callen Clinic opened in 1953, which she ran until her retirement from public health duties in 1971. Mrs. Callen continued to volunteer her services to the people of Berkeley County until her death in 1990.

During her lifetime Maude E. Callen received many awards and recognition for her work, including The Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award in 1984, for sixty years of service to her community; she was presented with the SC Order of the Palmetto; Honorary Degrees from Clemson University and MUSC, and was profiled in “On the Road” by Charles Kuralt.

When asked about her life’s work, Nurse Maude would simply state that she was doing what she loved. The love was mutual.