As Columbia Nursing’s midwifery program reaches its sixth decade, we celebrate its progress and success as the first program of its kind in the United States and one of the finest in the country. The program’s many graduates are not only highly skilled practitioners but critical thinkers educated to become leaders and policymakers. Former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton ’67 is among the school’s well-known midwifery graduates, who include local and national legislative policymakers, directors of global health initiatives, and practice owners and managers within the health care system.
Guided by a series of remarkable directors, the program has continuously evolved to anticipate the complexity and growth of the field, anticipating future needs of women and the profession. From the 10 forward-looking midwifery pioneers who have guided Columbia Nursing’s program, we have selected three who have been beacons in guiding the field.
Mary Irene Crawford, EdD, CNM
When Mary Crawford became a certified nurse midwife in 1953, the profession was scarcely recognized by the United States medical establishment. It would be another 16 years before the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) officially recognized the practice of nurse midwifery. Shortly after her certification, Crawford took the opportunity to practice in the obstetrics department of Johns Hopkins Medicine. It was the first time any nurse midwife had practiced in a major university medical center. She did indeed practice, but her title was “obstetric assistant.” Having a "midwife” listed in practice, it was thought, might ignite controversy.
But Crawford impressed the physicians at Hopkins with her contributions: the calming human touch and the deep understanding of the birth process that she shared with patients. In 1954, she began working at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center’s new obstetrical clinic. In 1955 she founded the nurse midwifery program at Columbia University School of Nursing, the first graduate midwifery program in the nation. It was also the first midwifery education program located within a university. Now midwifery students could gain their clinical expertise in a university-affiliated hospital.
Under Crawford’s leadership, the fledgling program grew, eventually graduating more than 200 high-caliber nurse midwives. As a leader, she also influenced and nurtured more than 20 faculty members. Crawford was known as caring, articulate, and courageous—with a touch of wicked humor.
As one of her successors, Joyce Beebe Thompson, wrote at the time of Crawford’s death in 1979, “Under Mary’s leadership, faculty were encouraged to carry out her belief that education should be the leader and not the follower of the profession.”
In her lifetime, Crawford saw momentous progress in the profession. By 1970, for example, nurse midwifery was expanding in private practice. In 1971 ACOG finally recognized nurse midwives as practitioners.
Betty Carrington '71 EdD, CNM, FACNM
Just months after Betty Carrington became director, she found herself facing major system-wide changes. Moving in a new direction, Columbia Nursing required that all faculty now had to be practicing clinicians as well as educators. This duality would come to be seen as a great strength of the school, but it meant a tumultuous initiation for Carrington. The full-time nurse midwifery faculty of six was soon reduced to one. Carrington adapted successfully, developing her own midwifery-focused faculty over time and attracting outstanding students. An African-American pioneer, she was also able to fulfill her wish, she said, “to serve women of color and poverty.”
“In my life I’ve often been the only person of color to take on a particular role,” Carrington said. “I don’t know where that courage or strength comes from, but that’s what I brought to Columbia Nursing.”
Although she held a new EdD in education administration (from Teachers College) when she became director of Columbia’s midwifery program, Carrington had taught at SUNY Downstate for seven years. She was also a veteran public-health nurse and, for many years, had been a midwife to underserved women and children, primarily in poverty-plagued areas of Brooklyn.
At Columbia Nursing, she taught her students to be more sensitive to African-American, Caribbean, and other women of the African Diaspora. She developed an affiliation between the school and Harlem Hospital, in which she practiced and supervised her students’ practice. She taught students what she called “cultural competency,” bringing them to the Abyssinian Baptist Church and to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a specialized Harlem branch of the New York Public Library focusing on people of African descent worldwide. She believed midwives would serve their patients better if they understood their patients’ cultures.
In one initiative, she created a course in nutrition at Columbia Nursing to teach students how to guide their patients to eat well within the context of their own cultures. “They needed to know,” she said with a laugh, “not everybody eats eggs and bacon, steak and potatoes.”
Carrington said she is proud that she guided the nurse midwifery program safely through a difficult transition and left it, “stable, well established, with good faculty continuing after me.” She said she’s also proud that the cultural competency she instilled remains a core value of the Columbia Nurse Midwifery program.
Laura Zeidenstein '05, DNP, CNM
When Laura Zeidenstein took charge of the program, she was already a champion on behalf of women and midwifery all over the world. In her writings and consultancy to advocacy groups, she brought attention to such causes as the need for gender equality and the care of women who suffered from genital cutting. She remains sensitive to women marginalized or stigmatized, from LGBTQ people in the United States to traditional birth attendants in Bangladesh. She has delivered close to two thousand babies and has been a key part of a nurse midwife-owned practice, Midwifery of Manhattan.
As director of the Nurse Midwifery program, Zeidenstein has dedicated herself to imbuing it with her central feminist and humanist values. Her “feminist base,” she said, has made the program’s peer-focused mentorships central. “Ours is a very relationship-based program,” she said, “in which lifelong collegial relationships are formed.”
Under Zeidenstein, the program has challenged, guided, and nurtured students to develop leadership qualities: becoming involved politically, for example, to make the health care system better serve all women. At least 20 of her students have shown leadership by publishing in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health, contributing evidence-based knowledge to the field and gaining recognition for their work.
Students have also learned they can become policymakers and advocates for the profession. Program graduates are now influencing policy nationally and globally, from Planned Parenthood to Doctors Without Borders.
Health care systems throughout the world have increasingly come to recognize the value of midwives to women’s and children’s health, due in part to the Columbia nurse midwives trained under Zeidenstein. “We educate midwives who know how to work within the system,” she said, “but who can also rock the boat.”
Sixty Years: We Honor Our Directors
Mary Irene Crawford
Eunice “Kitty” Ernst
Carole Kaufmann '63
Joyce Beebee Thompson
Barbara Whalen Decker '60
Betty Carrington '71
Ronnie Lichtman '77
Jennifer Dohrn '85 '05
Laura Zeidenstein '05