Adelyn Dohme Breeskin was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended the Bryn Mawr preparatory school, initially hoping to become an artist. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1918 and also studied at the Boston School of Fine Arts, Crafts, and Decorative Design. She worked as an assistant in the print department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1920, she married Elias Breeskin, a violinist with whom she had three children; the couple divorced 10 years later. She moved back to Baltimore to work as a curator of prints and drawings at the Baltimore Museum of Art, during which time she discovered an unpublished pen drawing by Rembrandt while cataloguing the 20,000 works in a collection lent to the museum. Mrs. Breeskin became the first woman to direct a major American art museum when she was named acting head of the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1942 and later became its director in 1947.
In 1962, she left Baltimore to organize and direct the short-lived Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Two years later, she became the curator of contemporary painting and sculpture at the National Collection of Fine Arts, later renamed the National Museum of American Art, where she worked until her death. There she featured artists such as Mary Cassatt, Milton Avery, H. Lyman Sayen, William J. Johnson, and Bob Thompson. She was a leading figure in the museum world and a champion of contemporary art.
A specialist on the work of Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Breeskin was the author of two catalogue raisonnés on Cassatt’s work and acted as curator of the Cassatt retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 1970. In 1986, she received the Secretary's Gold Medal for Exceptional Service