Bringing Life into the World

By Karen L. Hayden

The arduous life of a midwife in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is portrayed in the Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Midwife's Tale. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich hits a home run with her work based upon the diary of Martha Ballard: 1785-1812.

Though her diary starts after the Revolution, there is still much to be learned about a woman's place in her home, her town, her church, and her profession. Things did not change that rapidly — especially in outlying areas. Though living in Oxford, Massachusetts, the Ballards were in the middle of moving when the Revolution was happening. From 1775-1777, her husband, Ephriam, was scoping out sites for a new sawmill and a new home for his family along the Kennebec River, in what is now part of Augusta, Maine.

In 1769, Martha had lost three of her six children in ten days during one of the worst diphtheria epidemics in New England history. While these children were dying, Martha was preparing to give birth again. She would have two more before she was done in 1779. Of these six, five would survive her.

Her diary contains very succinct entries, mainly focusing on the weather, what she did that day, births and deaths she was involved in, and family news. Many of the passages plead with God to grant her the strength to bear what she must. Ms. Ulrich both lets us read parts of the diary verbatim and uses quotes from the diary along with other records to explain a facet of life. The political upheaval between rich land proprietors and poor squatters, debtors and jail, male doctors versus female midwives, and the economic difficulties of aging are some of the topics covered in this book. There are also details of an axe murder that makes Lizzie Borden look tame by comparison.

Martha's diary and midwife practice took off in 1785 when her youngest daughter was 14, old enough to help her mother run the household and care for her six year old brother. From Martha's diary, we learn that it is nothing new for babies to decide to be born in the wee hours.

"Calld from Shaws to James Hinklys wife in travil. Put her safe to bed with a son at 7 O Clock this morn." – August 24, 1787

"I was Calld between 12 & 1 hour morn to Eliab Shaws wife in travil. Shee was safe delivd at the 11th (hour) of a fine Daughter." – September 17, 1788

Needless to say, Martha Ballard spent many sleepless nights with her patients. The rewards for being a midwife were many for one as skilled as Martha Ballard. Besides making a decent living, she only had one woman die in childbed under her care. It was during an outbreak of scarlet fever. The words "safe delivered" echo again and again in tribute to her skill.

Though she brought over 800 babies into the world, not every child made it to adulthood. One of these was two-year-old John Davis.

"I was called to see John Davis at my sons. He appears to have symtoms of the near aproach of Death." – February 1, 1801.

The very next day, Martha wrote:

"Was calld on at midnight when an alteration in the patients breathing took place. It was not able to swallow after that nor had it any great struggle. Its life went out as a candle."

As it turns out, midwives were regular participants in another medical event. By the mid-eighteenth century, "desections" or autopsies were somewhat routine in New England. Martha was invited to observe four autopsies and recorded what she learned in her diary. After the autopsy, she would most likely be the one to put on the "grave cloaths," preparing the body for burial.

Midwives, as female practitioners of medicine in the 18th century, were sometimes in conflict with male doctors. Martha has some passages in her diary disdaining their medical advice. These often centered around course of treatment. It seems that she took the remedy side of her practice very seriously, and planted many of the herbs that would grow in the Maine climate. Some of them were sage, saffron, coriander, anise, marigolds, and camomile.

Herbs were made into tea, syrups, olisters, and poultices. The ones she needed but did not cultivate were either purchased from shopkeepers or gathered wild from the fields.

Read this diary and you will feel like you know her. Ulrich says, "The diary tells us that Martha was a devout Christian and humble nurse whose intelligence sometimes made it difficult for her to attend church or defer to her town's physicians, a loving mother who fought openly for the possession of her house and sometimes felt abandoned and unappreciated."

Martha's legacy has included other female medical pioneers. Clara Barton was her grandniece. Her great-great grandaughter Mary Hobart, one of the first female medical doctors, practiced in Massachusetts from 1884-1913. It was Doctor Hobart who shared the diary with the State of Maine where Ms. Thatcher Ulrich found it.

I certainly was reminded that an 18th century woman's work was never done, that their lives were always a struggle, but that they put their shoulders to the wheel and their trust in God to survive.

Copyright © 1996 Karen L. Hayden. All rights reserved.