Maine

Martha Ballard, Midwife. As Good As, In Some Ways Better Than, the Best Doctors

Martha Ballard somehow managed to deliver 797 babies in the frontier community of Hallowell (now Augusta), Maine, between 1785 and 1812. She kept her now-famous diary during those years, which also tells of endless work cooking, gardening and spinning.

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

Her diary would fade into obscurity, passed around from people to the Maine State Library, where a historian then discovered it. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich mined what seemed a mundane chronicle to reveal insights into women’s role in the frontier economy, medical practices, the prevalence of violence, treatment of debtors (Martha’s husband), marriage customs, the Malta War and, of course, birthing babies. Thatcher’s book won the Pulitzer Prize and PBS then aired it as a documentary.

Martha Ballard

Martha Moore was born on Feb. 9, 1735 in Oxford, Mass., to Elijah Moore and Dorothy Learned Moore. Little is known about her early life and education. At 19 she married Ephraim Ballard in 1754, and they had nine children between 1756 and 1779. Three of them died in Oxford during a diphtheria epidemic in the summer of 1769.

Martha wasn’t the only health care provider in her family. She had two uncles who practiced as physicians, and her great-niece, Clara Barton, founded the American Red Cross. Her great-great-granddaughter, Mary Hobart, was an obstetrician who graduated from Women’s Medical College, of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

The Kennebec River today at Augusta

Sometime between 1769 and 1785, Martha and her family moved near the wild Kennebec River on the Maine (then Massachusetts) frontier.

She started  her diary on Jan. 1, 1785, when she was 50 years old.

mr Ballard left home bound for Oxford. I had been Sick with the Collic. mrs Savage went home. mrs foster Came at Evening. it snowd a little.

Using a quill pen and homemade ink, she then made 9,999 entries over 27 years. In them she described the dangers and difficulties of her life. In 1981, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich got a grant to research Martha’s diary. Ten years later she published her prize-winning book, A Midwife’s Tale about it.

Better Than a Doctor?

Martha Ballard used home-grown remedies and traveled by horse (sometimes falling off) and canoe to her patients. She  treated burns and rashes, frostbite, coughs, colic and sore throats. Most of the medicines she grew herself, gathered in the wild or transformed from household staples. She did buy some medicines, like camphor.

In at least one respect she was a more methodical and progressive practitioner than most country doctors, argues  Ulrich. 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.’

Chores, Too

Like most early American women, Martha Ballard spent endless hours carding and spinning. Cloth was hard to obtain on the frontier, the women had to pick, spin, comb, dye and card flax, wool and, to a lesser extent, cotton. Historian Alice Morse Earle writes that early American women bought cotton by the pound. Earle describes the tedious process.

…the seeds were picked out one by one, by hand; it was carded on wool-cards, and spun into a rather intractable yarn which was used as warp for linsey-woolsey and rag carpets. … Sometimes a twisted yarn was made of one thread of cotton and one of wool which was knit into durable stockings.

At least Martha didn’t weave the cloth herself. She took her spun cotton, wool and flax to Mr. Edson, who wove it.

On July 27, 1786, Martha Ballard wrote in her diary that she carded cotton as well as built a fence, cared for sick children, bought meat and received visitors.

Clear. I carded Cottne & Cutt Aulders and maid a Sort of a fence part round the yard By the mill Pond, and then was Calld to Eliab Shaws to See his Children, they being Sick with ye Canker rash. Hannah North, Tammy & Sally Cox here. Brot a quarter of Lamb, wt 7-1/2 lb. Polly Bisbe & Adams here to Day.

The Diary Ends

She last wrote in her diary in the spring of 1812. In an undated entry, she wrote,

Clear the most of ye day & very Cold & windy. Dagt Ballard and a Number of her Children here, mrs Partridg & Smith allso. Revd mr Tappin Came and Converst Swetly and made A Prayer adapted to my Case.
at home, very feeble, Revd mr Tappin [  ] see me.
A notice of her death was published on June 9, 1812.

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.

Image of the Kennebec River By Billy Hathorn – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34058018.

This story was updated in 2021.

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