Today, let's get to know an 18th-century American
midwife. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In 1777, 42-year-old Martha
Ballard and her husband, Ephraim, moved to the town
-- if you could call it that -- of Hollowell,
Maine. Hollowell's 100 log cabins were strung out
along the wide, flat Kennebec River -- an Atlantic
seaport, 46 miles inland.
Ephraim was a 4th-generation millwright. Martha was
literate but not educated. Her spelling was -- well
-- highly creative. She'd mothered eight children,
with one more to come. Three had died in a
diphtheria epidemic eight years before. Now Martha,
after a lengthy apprenticeship, took up midwifing
in Hollowell. In 1785, she also began a diary,
which she kept until she died in 1812.
The diary somehow survived, and what a window on
early American life it gives us! 814 recorded
births by 1812 and maybe 200 before she began
writing. Her working conditions were appalling --
crossing the Kennebec on breaking ice in the spring
-- death and incurable illness riding on everyone's
back -- pulling flax when she wasn't pulling
babies. Here's a typical entry:
Snow hail & rain. I left [Mr. Parker's]
lady at 4 pm as well as Could be Expected &
walkt over the river. Wrode Mr. Ballard's hors
home. I had a wrestless night from fataug &
weting my feet.
Her performance was astonishing. In over one
thousand births she lost only five mothers and
twenty babies. A mother was in far better hands
with Martha Ballard than she would've been in a
London hospital. Modern American deliveries weren't
any safer than hers until WW-II.
Of course her midwifing was just about all the
medicine the good people of Hollowell had access
to. So her diary also provides an 18th-century
pharmacopoeia. Her biographer, Laurel Thatcher
Ulrich, lists her nostrums in her own words. For
Eunice had a very severe pain in her teeth
& face. I aplyd some scorcht Tow & hett her
face & and she got Ease, . . .
[Summer savory] expels tough phlegm from the
chest and lungs.
Elisa very unwel. We aplyed Turnip poltis to
her bowels which gave relief soon.
She didn't mention abortion, though births out of
wedlock were fairly common. By the time she died,
patent medicines were on the market with the
cloaked suggestion that they could aid a woman's
health but were dangerous if she was pregnant.
By then, commercial medicine, city medicine, and
male medicine were all reaching Hollowell. The
world was changing. So much that was good about
Ballard would now be replaced, along with her
Yet if you want to learn how America was really
formed, then read Martha Ballard's laconic diary --
A Midwife's Tale. For it is in the
detail of a hard life, well lived, that
civilization is made.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds