Resource

Diary of a Midwife

Excerpts from a midwife’s diary reveal information about women’s role in medicine in the Federal period.

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Summary

September 23, 1786: “I was called early this morning to see Lidia Savage who was very ill. Gave her some urine and honey and some licourice and put a plaster to her stomach. Went up afternoon. Find her relieved.” Today, I was called to visit Lydia Savage who was very sick. I treated her with urine, honey, licorice, and put an herbal patch on her belly. When I visited again this afternoon, she was better.
March 17, 1789:“I was called at the twelfth hour to go to George Boltons wife in travail. Mr. Ballard went after his horse which was lent to Polly Savage. I waited two hours and Mr. Usher came with Captain Savages mare. I set out alone and arrived safe. My anxiety was great for the woman, but I found her safe. She was safely delivered at the ninth hour evening and I returned at two. At noon, I got a message that George Ballard’s wife was in labor. It took me two hours to get a horse. I was very worried that it took so long, but she was ok. She gave birth at 9 PM and I made it home at 2 AM.
December 30, 1790: I was called at the dawn of the day to Wiesoms, found his wife suffering for want of help. She was delivered of a son the eighth hour. The infant I was fearful would expire but revived and I left mother and child cleverly. Arrived at home at twelve o’clock, then went to Mr. Burgess. I gave his wife some medicine, walked home. Called to see Polly McKethney who it is that is mending slowly. At dawn, I got a message that Mrs. Wisdom was in labor. When I arrived she was not well. She gave birth at 8 AM. The baby almost died, but I was able to save it. By the time I left, both mother and child were well. I got home at noon and went to visit Mr. Burgess’s wife. I gave her medicine and walked home. Then I visited Polly McKethney. She is slowly getting better.

Martha Ballard’s Diary. “History Toolkit: Using Primary Sources,” Do History http://dohistory.org/on_your_own/toolkit/primarySources.html (accessed April 28, 2009). Reprinted with permission from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University.

Copyright © 2000, President and Fellows of Harvard College.

All materials are copyrighted by the President and Fellows of Harvard College except where otherwise indicated. Commercial use prohibited without permission. All rights reserved.

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Background

Medical care in the early United States was very different from what it is today. There were doctors, but they only performed very specific tasks like bloodletting and their services were very expensive. Most people relied on the services of midwives for medical care.

Today, a midwife is a woman trained to deliver babies and care for pregnant and postpartum women. But in early America, midwives played a much larger role in caring for their communities. Midwives knew herbal remedies and treatments to address many common illnesses and injuries. They could forage for ingredients and make their own medicines. When someone in the community went into labor or fell ill, their family would call the midwife to examine and care for them. If someone died, a midwife would help prepare the body for burial.

Midwives learned their trade by working with other midwives. In this way, important medical and community information was gathered and passed from woman to woman. Being a midwife was one of the most respectable jobs a woman could have outside the home in the early United States.

About the Resources

These are passages from the diary of midwife Martha Ballard. Martha lived and worked in Hallowell, Maine, from the 1780s–1812. She attended about 1,000 births during her career. Martha’s diary is a treasure trove of information about daily life in the early United States. These passages show the kind of care Martha provided for her community and some of the unusual remedies she used in her practice.

Vocabulary

  • bloodletting: A common medical treatment of the 18th century that involved cutting a person to drain some of their blood for therapeutic purposes.
  • midwife: A woman trained to deliver babies and treat common medical conditions.
  • midwifery: The profession of delivering babies and treating common medical issues.
  • postpartum: After childbirth.
  • remedies: Medicines or treatments for diseases or injuries.

Discussion Questions

  • What can we learn about the daily life of an early American midwife from these passages?
  • Why is a record like this valuable to historians?
  • Why is it important to acknowledge the history of midwifery in the United States? Why do you think their role in communities has been downplayed in historical narratives?
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Suggested Activities

  • Martha Ballard’s entire diary is available online. It is a great resource for teaching students how to do their own primary source research. Assign each student a single page of entries and have them make notes of all the details they learn about daily life. Then have students work together as a class to compile a list of all the different kinds of information they learned and what questions they still have about life in Hallowell, Maine.
  • Teach this resource together with the life story of Asenath Smith to learn how the government began to curtail the power of midwives during the Federal period.
  • For a larger lesson about the work opportunities available to women in the Federal period, teach this resource together with any of the following: Benevolent Societies, Life Story: Margaret Bayard Smith, Mill Girls, Silhouettes, and Life Story: Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps.

Themes

WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY; SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND MEDICINE

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