Martha Ballard was the most renowned midwife of the 19th century. She gained fame for not only delivering babies, but also for her diary that chronologized medical history for twenty-seven years. Her diary later inspired the movie A Midwife’s Tale, and a clip of the movie can be viewed below. Ballard was born between 1734 and 1735, in Oxford, Massachusetts. In 1754, she married Ephraim Ballard and together they had nine children, unfortunately three of their children died from the diphtheria epidemic in the summer of 1769.
Ballard gained fame for delivering close to a thousand babies with only five recorded deaths of mothers. This was phenomenal for the time period when diseases ran rapid, killing lots of mothers. Bollard’s occupation wasn’t just being a midwife she was also described as: a nurse, physician, mortician, pharmacist, and attentive wife. Midwives were offered a salary and a house rent free. It was deemed the best paid female occupation of the time. Ballard also delivered animals, attended baptism, and burials of infants. Unlike other midwives, Ballard didn’t offer any pain medications, like choloform, just alcohol or her own herbal remedies.
Susanna Clayton was the first woman to ever die in Ballard’s care and this was later contributed to childbed fever. Ballard’s diary wasn’t very detailed about her role as a midwife she often wrote “delivered” or “safe delivered,” when a child was born successfully. Other times when complications arose during delivery she merely wrote, “safe delivered tho very ill indeed,” or “her case was some alarming but she revived and seems comfortable.” Ballard valued deeds and doing good for others, therefore it comes as no surprise that she often thanked the Lord for his help with her deliveries. “She had a laborious illness but Blessed by God it terminated in safety. May she and I ascribe the praise to the Great parent of the Universe.”
Martha’s greatest fear was when a woman was in labour unattended because she knew that the woman was in want of help. Most of Ballard’s births were routine and predictable, and attributed her success to God. Ballard’s accounts as a midwife weren’t detailed at all. In fact, she didn’t describe the three pains of labor in medical terms, but instead in social terms. She depicted the first stage as being when the mother is with the midwife during labour and the mother walks around as she prepares to have her baby. The second stage was when women of the neighborhood gathered in the dark, hot room to help deliver the baby. Often times Ballard had two to four assistants aiding her in the birth and they all celebrated the safe arrival of the baby. The last stage was when the midwife left and the afternurse took over caring for the newborn and the mother. This was known as the lying-in period.
Out of the five women that perished after the birth of their children three of them were believed to have died from childbed fever, while the other two died of the measles and convulsions eclampsi and toxemia.