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. She kept her now-famous diary during those years.

She reckoned she performed a total of  981 deliveries in her lifetime, since she only started keeping her diary at the age of 50.

Martha Ballard diary entry, Aug. 27, 1791

Martha Ballard diary entry, Aug. 27, 1791

Martha Ballard, midwife and healer on the Maine frontier,  used home-grown remedies. She 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.

Ulrich wrote A Midwife’s Tale from Ballard’s diary. And she observed that Martha Ballard kept medical records — in her diary — something 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 didn’t differ much from those of the best doctors of the age. She attended autopsies and meticulously recorded medical and obstetrical details. She also paid attention to vital records and was generally committed to facts.

Martha Ballard, Midwife

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 that Isaac Hardin called her at 4 a.m., and his wife delivered a daughter at 1 p.m.

Then, “I went Directly from there to James Savages, my hors mrd in a Swamp and I fell off,,” she wrote. After extricating herself and her horse from the swamp, she arrived at the Savages at 3 p.m. to find his wife safely delivered of a fine son with the help of James’ mother.

Martha then went back to the Hardins by Colonel Dutton’s farm, rode Hardin’s horse home, and arrived at 8 p.m.

She wrote that she was, ‘very much fatigud.’

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. Also from Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health by Judith W. Leavitt (Editor), Ronald L. Numbers. This story was updated in 2020.

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