A Midwife’s Tale

Only one American midwife of the Revolutionary War era left a diary that has been recovered, Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine. It is a fairly basic document. Some entries are just a few words. Still, between 1785 and 1812, a time of incredible change in New England, Martha tended her diary regularly.

A Midwife's Tale

A Midwife's Tale

In 1990, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich used her own considerable knowledge of the period to connect the dots in Ballard's diary. The result was A Midwife's Tale, which won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards. It is a terrific book, and it was made into a film for PBS's "American Experience."

One of the best things about A Midwife's Tale is the fact that Ulrich has given us a fully fleshed-out picture of Martha Ballard, and has at the same time retained her distinctive voice. Ballard was a religious, hard-working wife and mother who trained her daughters and other young women to assist her, understood the medicinal uses of the plants she grew in her kitchen garden, and in her prime delivered two-thirds of the children in Hallowell.

The town had more than one doctor, but in 816 births over the course of 27 years, Martha called a doctor in to help her with a birth just twice. In all those years, Martha saw 19 babies and five mothers die just before, during or just after birth.

While childbirth rested on a community of women when Ballard began her career, one of the tensions of the book comes out of the inroads male doctors were already making into midwifery by the time Martha died in 1812.

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