Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1035:
MARTHA BALLARD, MIDWIFE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1035.

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 example:

Eunice had a very severe pain in her teeth & face. I aplyd some scorcht Tow & hett her face & and she got Ease, . . .

Or:

[Summer savory] expels tough phlegm from the chest and lungs.

Or:

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 obvious limitations.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Ulrich, L.T., A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for providing this remarkable book and for urging a radio episode based upon it.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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