Edith “Edie” Baldwin Wonnell, CNM
(May 14, 1931 – December 21, 2019)
It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Edith Baldwin Wonnell on December 21, 2019. Edie, as she was known, was a leader and pioneer in nurse-midwifery in the United States. She beautifully modeled the mission of the nurse-midwifery program of Frontier Nursing University which states, in part, “to educate nurses to become competent, entrepreneurial, ethical, and compassionate nurse-midwives and nurse practitioners who are leaders in the primary care of women and families….” Because of her development of freestanding birth centers and her extraordinary life-long dedication to the profession, we were honored to present her with the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, in 2018.
Edie’s remarkable story demonstrates the importance of applying relationship, resilience, and reflection to pioneering change. Her story reveals two of the most basic characteristics of all successful leaders: passion for their work and willingness to take calculated risks. When Edie began her work, she had the wisdom and vision to see that ALL childbearing women were being underserved. She answered her call to nursing and midwifery by establishing a comprehensive family-centered maternity service in the 1960s and two freestanding birth centers in the 1970s.
She grew up on a farm in Woodbridge, Connecticut. Her father was a state senator and chairman of the New England Republican Party in the years following World War II. Edie was educated in nursing at Skidmore College, and in midwifery in one of the first classes at Columbia University. She first worked as a nurse-midwife at the Home Birth Service of Maternity Center Association.
In 1961, Edie married Jim Wonnell and relocated to Pennsylvania. There, as Edie began her family of four children, she was recruited by a group of mothers to establish one of Philadelphia’s first childbirth education courses. The participants met in weekly evening classes in a church basement, laying the foundation for the activist women to proceed to establish the Philadelphia Childbirth Education Association. In 1967, Edie was recruited by the Wilmington Medical Center to establish their ground-breaking childbirth education and family-centered maternity care services.
Edie’s entrepreneurial drive led her to open the Bryn Mawr Birth Center in 1978 and The Birth Center in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1982. Today, both birth centers operate at full capacity. Simply put, she developed the entrepreneurial model that has played a major role in offering an alternative to the not-for-profit birth center model.
A debt of gratitude is owed to Edie for her participation in national research on birth centers. Edie’s never-ending contributions in voluntary service on the Boards and Committees of the American College of Nurse-Midwives, American Association of Birth Centers, and the Commission for the Accreditation of Birth Centers provide an extraordinary role model of selfless service.
We will miss Edie tremendously, but her spirit, impact, and inspiration will live on for generations to come.