In December 1951, LIFE published one of the most extraordinary photo essays ever to appear in the magazine. Across a dozen pages, and featuring more than 20 of the great W. Eugene Smith’ pictures, the story of a tireless South Carolina nurse and midwife named Maude Callen opened a window on a world that, surely, countless LIFE readers had never seen and, perhaps, had never even imagined. Working in the rural South in the 1950s, in “an area of some 400 square miles veined with muddy roads,” as LIFE put it, Callen served as “doctor, dietician, psychologist, bail-goer and friend” to thousands of poor (most of them desperately poor) patients only two percent of whom were white.

The article in LIFE, titled simply “Nurse Midwife,” that chronicled Callen’s work and her unique role in her community is a companion piece, of sorts, to Smith’s 1948 essay, “Country Doctor.” Spending time with the two essays, one gets the sense that Maude Callen and Dr. Ernest Ceriani of Kremmling, Colorado while physically separated by thousands of miles, as well as by the even broader, thornier barrier of race – would not only understand one another, on an elemental level, but that each would recognize something utterly familiar in the other. Their lives and the landscapes they navigated might have been as different, in critical ways, as one can possibly imagine; but in the essentials, they were kindred spirits. They were healers.

Here, LIFE.com presents “Nurse Midwife” in its entirety, as well as images that Smith shot for the story but that were never published in LIFE.

The story in LIFE began this way, setting the stage for what one reader called, echoing the numerous awe-struck letters to the editor published in a later issue, “one of the greatest pieces of photojournalism I have seen in years”:

Some weeks ago in the South Carolina village of Pineville, in Berkeley County on the edge of Hell Hole Swamp, the time arrived for Alice Cooper to have a baby and she sent fr the midwife. At first it seemed that everything was all right, but soon the midwife noticed signs of trouble. Hastily she sent for a woman name Maude Callen to come and take over.

After Maude Callen arrived at 6 p.m., Alie Cooper’s labor grew more severe. It lasted through the night until dawn. But at the end she was safely delivered of a healthy son. The new midwife had succeeded in a situation where the fast-disappearing “granny” midwife of the South, armed with superstition and a pair of rusty scissors, might have killed both mother and child.

Maude Callen is a member of a unique group, the nurse midwife. Although there are perhaps 20,000 common midwives practicing, trained nurse midwives are rare. There are only nine in South Carolina, 300 in the nation. Their education includes the full course required of all registered nurses, training in public heath and at least six months’ classes in obstetrics.

Maude Callen has delivered countless babies in her career, but obstetrics is only part of her work… To those who think that a middle-aged Negro [sic] without a medical degree has no business meddling in affairs such as these, Dr. William Fishburne, director of the Berkeley County health department, has a ready answer. When he was asked whether he thought Maude Callen could be spared to do some teaching for the state board of health, he replied, “If you have to take her, I can only ask you to join me in prayer for the people left here.”

For W. Eugene Smith, work mattered. Throughout his legendary career, he sought out and chronicled the lives and the labor of people who knew their craft. Whether he was photographing a world figure like Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa or anonymous Welsh coal miners; a doctor in the Rockies or a midwife in South Carolina; Smith saw something noble in hard work, and something profoundly admirable in men and women who cared enough to do their work well.

But one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who ever appeared in LIFE’s pages whose humble and necessary work merited more admiration than that of the unforgettable, unbreakable nurse midwife of Smith’s 1951 photo essay. After the piece was published, LIFE subscribers from all over the country sent donations, large and small, to help Mrs. Callen in what one reader called “her magnificent endeavor.” Thousands of dollars poured in sometimes in pennies and nickels, sometimes more until, as LIFE later reported, she was overwhelmed by the response.

“Halfway through a recent day’s mail, [Mrs. Callen] said to her husband: ‘I’m too tired and happy to read more tonight. I just want to sit here and be thankful.'”

Eventually, more than $20,000 in donations helped to build a clinic in Pineville, where Mrs. Callen worked until her retirement in 1971.

In later years, Maude Callen was still (rightfully) being celebrated for her life’s work. She was honored with the Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award in 1984 for six decades of service to her community, and in 1989 the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) awarded her an honorary degree, while the MUSC College of Nursing created a scholarship in her name.

Maude Callen died in 1990 at the age of 91 in Pineville, South Carolina, where she had lived, and served, for seven decades.

Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

Weary but watchful, Maude sat by as a mother dozed.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Waiting, a young mother leaned forlornly against the window, ignoring sympathy and looking for Maude’s Callen’s car.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Frightened and sick, the nervous mother was helped by Phoebe Gadsden, the first midwife she called. Gadsen, a practicing midwife who attended Maude’s classes, had helped at several deliveries but felt that this one needed special attention and so decided to ask Maude to come and supervise.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Maude got ready in kitchen by lamplight.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

In deep pain, the 17-year-old mother writhed, mumbling prayers while Mrs. Gadsden held her hand.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

At 4 A.M., hard labor began for Alice Cooper.

W. Eugene SmithLife Pictures/Shutterstock

At 5:30 A.M. a few seconds after the delivery, Maude Callen held the healthy child as he filled his lungs and began to cry.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

At 5:40 A.M., the long suffering over, the mother first saw her son. She had no name for him, but a week later she chose Harris Lee.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

At 5:45 A.M., the mother’s aunt, Catherine Prileau, tried to soothe her so that she would go to sleep.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

At 6:20 A.M., her work over at last, Callen quietly took the first nourishment that she has had for more than 27 hours.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Maude at 51 had a thoughtful, weary face that reflects the fury of her life. Orphaned at 7, she was brought up by an uncle in Florida, studied at the Georgia Infirmary in Savannah, and became a nurse at 21.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

After another delivery Maude departed at 4:30 a.m., leaving the case in charge of another midwife.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Healthy twins, who were delivered a day apart last year by Maude, received a quick once-over when she stopped in to see them and pump herself a drink of water. Only about 2 percent of her patients were white.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A tuberculosis case, 33-year-old Leon Snipe, sat morosely on a bed while Maude arranged with his sister for him to go to a state sanatorium.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

An accident case was brought to Maude’s door one night. Annabelle Fuller was seriously cut in an auto accident and Maude had given her first aid. Now the girl returned to have her dressings changed.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

This girl greeted Maude at her door.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

New dresses for 9-year-old Carrie (right) and 8-year-old Mary Jane Covington were dropped off by Maude on her way to a patient.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Simple kindness overwhelmed an old man. Frank McCray had a headache one day in 1927, soon was paralyzed, and had been in this chair ever since. He broke down and wept when Maude stopped in.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Extra duty assumed by Maude included cashing of relief checks and dealing with storekeepers for several people who were mentally incompetent or, like this man, blind.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Store-bought-food donated by Maude fascinated youngsters.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

After a call she waded back to her car.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A dying baby suffering from acute enteritis was rushed to the hospital.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A transfusion was almost impossible because the fever’s dehydration had affected the baby’s arm veins, and the doctor had to try the neck. The baby died before he could get blood flowing.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Dr. W. K. Fishburne, head of the Berkeley County health department, examined a patient brought to hospital by Maude.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Outside a clinic held in a school, a crowd waited to see Maude.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Maude Callen inspected a patient behind a bedsheet screen.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Maude made a delivery pad in patient’s home according to classroom method.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

The incubator was made of box and whisky bottles full of warm water.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

This crib was made of an old fruit crate propped near a cold stove.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Teaching a midwife class, Maude showed how to examine a baby for abnormalities. She conducted some 84 classes and helped coach about 12 new midwives each year.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

“Nurse Midwife” as it appeared in the Dec. 3, 1951, issue of LIFE.

Life Magazine

“Nurse Midwife” as it appeared in the Dec. 3, 1951, issue of LIFE.

Life Magazine

Nurse midwife Maude Callen, South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Pregnant woman, South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

A newborn delivered by nurse midwife Maude Callen, South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

“Nurse Midwife” as it appeared in the Dec. 3, 1951, issue of LIFE.

Life Magazine

Nurse midwife Maude Callen, South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Nurse midwife Maude Callen (right), South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

“Nurse Midwife” as it appeared in the Dec. 3, 1951, issue of LIFE.

Life Magazine

Nurse Midwife Maude Callen, South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Nurse midwife Maude Callen, South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

“Nurse Midwife” as it appeared in the Dec. 3, 1951, issue of LIFE.

Life Magazine

A child being treated by nurse midwife Maude Callen, South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

“Nurse Midwife” as it appeared in the Dec. 3, 1951, issue of LIFE.

Life Magazine

Nurse midwife Maude Callen, South Carolina, 1951.

Nurse midwife Maude Callen, South Carolina, 1951.

W. Eugene Smith/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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