Maine

Martha Ballard: As Good, In Some Ways, As the Best Doctors

Martha Ballard somehow managed to deliver 797 babies in Hallowell (now Augusta), Maine, between 1785 and 1812, when she kept her now-famous diary. She reckoned she performed a total of  981 deliveries in her lifetime, since she only started keeping her diary when she was 50 years old.

Martha Ballard diary entry, Aug. 27, 1791

Martha Ballard diary entry, Aug. 27, 1791

Martha Ballard was a midwife and a healer on the Maine frontier who used home-grown remedies and traveled by horse and canoe to her patients. Nonetheless, she was a more methodical and progressive practitioner than most country doctors in at least one respect, argues  Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who wrote A Midwife's Tale from Ballard's diary. Martha Ballard kept medical records -- in her diary -- which most country doctors didn't do. Her diary is practically the only medical record that exists for Hallowell in the 18th century save for a one-page letter.

In other ways, Ulrich notes, Martha Ballard's habits weren't all that different from those of the best doctors of the age. She attended autopsies, meticulously recorded medical and obstetrical details, paid attention to vital records and was generally committed to facts.

On Aug. 27, 1791, Martha Ballard helped with the birth of two children. She would have been about 56 years old. She wrote in her diary:

Clear. I was Calld by Isaac Hardin at 4 h morn, his wife Delivd of a Dagt at 1 h pm. I went Directly from there to James Savages, my hors mrd in a Swamp and I fell off. arivd at Savages at 3, find her Safely Deld of a fine Son by his marms assistance. were fresht and went back to Hardins by ColoDuttuns farm. I wrode Hardins hors home, arivd at 8 very much fatagud. 

You can browse Martha Ballard's complete diary here.

With thanks to Martha Moore Ballard and the Medical Challenge to Midwifery by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, from Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health by Judith W. Leavitt (Editor), Ronald L. Numbers.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Karen Arnold McPherson

    August 27, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Loved this book when I read it for a graduate history course a few years ago!

  2. Karen Arnold McPherson

    August 27, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Loved this book when I read it for a graduate history course a few years ago!

  3. Lisbeth Whitney

    August 27, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    The American Experience episode is good too.

  4. Lisbeth Whitney

    August 27, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    The American Experience episode is good too.

  5. Pat Cremens

    August 27, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    PBS had a video about her.

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