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Martha Ballard (1735-1812)

Martha Ballard was a midwife and healer. She lived in the town of Hallowell, near the northeastern coast of America. Ballard would have been lost to history had she not kept a remarkable diary. She wrote nearly every day, from 1785 until shortly before her death. There were almost 10,000 entries. Her diaries provide a unique insight into the duties of a local midwife and the lives of ordinary people living two centuries ago.

There are descriptions of the herbal medicines and birthing techniques she employed. Ballard also recorded the activities of a new doctor, Benjamin Page. He was a young man-midwife who enjoyed a prestigious career. Ballard was not impressed. She criticised him for administering powerful drugs such as laudanum and his overzealous use of instruments. She blamed the latter for more than one infant’s death. After one such death she calls Page a ‘poor unfortunate man’.

Ballard’s diaries recall over 800 babies being delivered in a 27-year period. She was apparently an extremely competent midwife: only a handful of her cases ended with a fatality, and only 5% of births showed complications. Ballard’s diaries also reveal the domestic minutiae and gossip of small-town American life shortly after the country’s independence. They record rapid social change, economic hardship, religious conflict and the effects of disease and violence. An edited version of her diary was published in 1991 after years of research. It became an award-winning bestseller.

 

Related links

Bibliography

L Ulrich, ‘“The Living Mother of a Living Child": Midwifery and Mortality in Post-Revolutionary New England’, The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 46/1 (January 1989), pp 27-48

M Ballard and L Ulrich, Laurel (ed.), A Midwife's Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Vintage Books, Random House Publishers, 1991)

Glossary:

Laudanum

A herbal preparation of opium. It is made by mixing ethanol with opium. In the 1800s, laudanum was prescribed by many doctors to reduce pain and aid sleep.