Maude Callen, the midwife who delivered almost 1000 African-American babies and shunned a U.S president

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Maude Callen

The immense contribution of Maude E. Callen to the well-being of African-Americans can’t be overstated, having been at the forefront of safeguarding the community with her vocation.  After the completion of her study from Florida A & M University in 1922, as well as her nursing course at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, she dedicated her life to protecting her people.

Callen was born on November 8th, 1898, in Quincy, Florida.  She began  her elementary education at the Saint Michael’s and All Angels Parochial Schools. As an orphan from age six, Callen was raised by Dr. William J. Gunn, a physician who was also an uncle; from whom she developed an interest in healthcare.

When she started practicing from her home, she was one of nine midwives in the area. As an Episcopal missionary nurse, she opened a community clinic out of her home, miles from any hospital. She served people in an area of 400 square miles either by coming to her or the other way round. She was the sole health-care provider, teacher and nutritionist in many instances.

There have been various arguments on how many babies she delivered in her years of practice, some said Callen delivered between 600 and 800 babies while others put the figure at over 1000.

Her first encounter with renowned photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith, seeing her impact on the people led to a 12-page publication in December 1951 on Life magazine publication which exposed  the difficult atmosphere that nurses and midwives were operating in.

Being moved, readers quickly donated over $20,000 to support Callen’s work in Pineville. The proceeds were used to start the Maude E. Callen clinic in 1953, which was in operation until her retirement from public health duties in 1971.

Married to William Dewer Callen in 1921, Maude started a lecture series in 1926 and later planned a two-week program to train women on basic medical practices. Upon their completion, she awards a license and a uniform which gives the woman a sense of accomplishment and pride.

In 1936, Callen became a public health nurse joining the Berkeley County Health Department. Her role was to train midwives throughout the county. She gave young black women the proper practices in prenatal care, labor support, baby delivery, and handling of newborns.

More so, her duties included vaccinations, examinations, and keeping tabs in the children’s eyes and teeth.

“Nurse Maude recounted that there were only two cars available in Berkeley County and none of the roads were smooth. Many of her patients arrived at her home in oxcarts at the middle of the night,” she also “often had to park her car and walk through mud, woods, and creeks to reach her patients.”

In 1943, Callen completed her six-month course at the Maternity Center at the Tuskegee Institute which gives her the same advanced training as a doctor. On the back of this, Callen became the second nurse-midwife in South Carolina.

After her retirement in 1971, Callen beckoned county officials to start a Senior Citizens Nutrition Site, which functioned, in 1980, out of the clinic. As a volunteer, Maude managed the center, cooking and delivering meals five days a week and provided car service to seniors needing transportation.

She turned down a presidential invitation from President Reagan to visit the White House noting, “You can’t just call me up and ask me to be somewhere. I’ve got to do my job.”

Callen taught children how to read and write and held vaccination clinics at local schools for smallpox and diphtheria (one of these clinics inoculated fifteen hundred children). She also collected and distributed relief materials and assisted in transporting the sick to the few hospitals that would treat African-American patients. She created clinics to help families maintain proper nutrition and held the county’s first venereal-disease clinic.

She earned an honorary doctorate from Clemson University and was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. She was also a recipient of the outstanding Older South Carolinian by the State Commission on Aging and was presented with the Order of the Palmetto by then Governor Richard W. Riley.

Maude E. Callen passed away at her home in Pineville on January 25th, 1990, and was buried in White Cemetery, near St. Stephen.  She had 12 sisters.

Africh Royale

Africh Royale

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