Highlights from W. Eugene Smith's "Nurse Midwife," 1951

A photo historical celebration of first responders and frontline healthcare professionals

By The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

All photographs from the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Nurse Midwife Maude Callen (giving vaccination) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

"A remarkable woman doing a remarkable job."

In its December 3, 1951 issue, LIFE magazine published "Nurse Midwife," a groundbreaking photo essay by W. Eugene Smith. His photographs celebrate Maude Callen, a tireless fifty-one year old health care provider who dedicated her life to serving patients in rural South Carolina. Though the editors at LIFE were expecting the photographer to
choose a white subject, Smith insisted on Callen. He wanted his
essay
to
counter racism by showing “a remarkable woman doing a remarkable job” in
incredibly difficult circumstances. Callen was the first non-celebrity,
African American subject featured in a twelve-page spread in
LIFE magazine. 

Orphaned as a young girl, Maude Callen was raised in Florida by her uncle Dr. William J. Gunn, who became the first African American doctor in Tallahassee.

After graduating from Florida A & M University and training as a nurse at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Callen began her own practice in 1923. She dedicated her life to serving poor and chronically neglected communities, most of which were African American.

Midwife Maude Callen (with sick child) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Photographer W. Eugene Smith spent two-and-a-half months following Callen, as she served impoverished communities in a 400 mile area of rural South Carolina known as Hell Hole Swamp. Callen often provided the only medical assistance available, as many doctors refused to tend the area.

As detailed in the Life magazine story Nurse Midwife: “Callen drives 36,000 miles within the county each year, is reimbursed for part of this by the state, and must buy her own cars, which last 18 months. Her work day is often sixteen hours and she earns $225 a month.”

Maude Callen at Stove (Nurse Midwife Series) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Nurse Midwife described the grueling days Callen typically endured:

“On her daily rounds she sees dozens of patients suffering from countless diseases and injuries. She visits the nine schools in her district to check vaccinations, eyes and teeth…She tries to keep diseases isolated and when she locates a case of contagious illness like tuberculosis she must comb through her territory like a detective, tracking down all the people with whom the patient may have been in contact...Whenever she is home—she is childless and her husband, a retired custom-house employee, sees her only at odd hours—she throws open a clinic in her house to take care of anyone who wanders in.”

Nurse Midwife (new dresses) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

“Doctor, dietician, psychologist,
bail-goer and friend”

W. Eugene Smith's photographs highlighted Maude Callen's many duties she performed for the people for whom she cared. Published text captions from LIFE magazine detailing Callen's diverse roles in her community accompany the following photographs.

Untitled (Girl in Doorway; from Nurse Midwife series) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

“Crippled girl greets Maude... Maude arranged for her to go to a state camp for crippled children, which had strict entrance requirements—each child had to have 2 dresses and 1 pair of pajamas. The girl could not meet these, but after Maude got her 1 dress and 1 pair of pajamas, she could.”

Untitled, (Patient, from "Nurse Midwife Series") (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

“Tuberculosis case, 33-year-old Leon Snipe, sits morosely on bed while Maude arranges with his sister for him to go to state sanatorium [hospital]. Maude had met him on the road, noticed he was thin, wan and sickly.”

Nurse Midwife (new dresses) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

“New dresses for 9-year-old Carrie (right) and 8-year-old Mary Jane Covington were dropped off by Maude... Occasionally, as in this case, she gets clothing from friends or charitable organizations and distributes it where she thinks it is most needed. But sometimes she buys the clothes herself.”

Nurse Midwife Maude Callen (at store) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

“Extra duty assumed by Maude includes cashing of relief checks and dealing with storekeepers for several people who are mentally incompetent or, like this man, blind. She paid his bills for him and counted out change so he could buy some tobacco.”

Nurse Midwife Maude Callen (examining pregnant woman) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Photographs published in Nurse Midwife feature Callen tending to a seventeen year old woman named Alice Cooper as she endured a difficult labor.

W. Eugene Smith's photographs show that Callen performed duties that went well beyond delivering babies. It is estimated, however, that Callen delivered between 600 and 800 babies during her career.

Maude Callen with newborn baby (Nurse Midwife Series) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

W. Eugene Smith was in awe of Callen, and in many of his photographs one is reminded of Old Master religious paintings depicting saints and Madonnas.

Writing of his experience with Callen Smith said: “No story could translate justly the life depth of this wonderful, patient, directional woman . . . I love her with a respect I have for almost no one.”

Two babies (Nurse Midwife series) (1951) by W. Eugene SmithThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

W. Eugene Smith’s essay deeply moved many Life readers, who donated $27,000 in unsolicited funds for the construction of the Maude E. Callen Clinic in Pineville, South Carolina. The clinic opened in 1953 and operated until Callen retired in 1971.

Though W. Eugene Smith produced many remarkable photo essays during his lifetime, Nurse Midwife remained his favorite.

Credits: Story

Cover:
W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Maude Callen with sick child, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.4355

1.) W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Maude Callen giving vaccination, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.4356

2.) W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Maude Callen with sick child, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.4355

3.)W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Maude Callen at Stove, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.2154

4.)W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Patient (Leon Snipe), from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.2153

5.)W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Girl in doorway, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.2152

6.)W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
New dresses for Carrie and Mary Jane Covington, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2005.37.317

7.)W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Maude Callen at store, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.2151

8.) W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Maude Callen examining pregnant woman, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.2150

9.)W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Maude Callen with newborn baby, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.4360

10.)W. Eugene Smith
American, 1918–1978
Two babies, from Nurse Midwife, 1951
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.2155

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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