Profiles in Nursing
Martha Ballard (1735-1812), Colonial Midwife and Diarist
Her remarkable diary reveals a legacy of nursing in 18th century America
She lived and died before Florence Nightingale was even born, but Martha Ballard’s diary still survives, providing us with a remarkable record of the lives of pioneer women and the practice of midwifery during the earliest years of the United States.
Even though she presided over hundreds of births, bore nine children herself and was an honored and respected member of her rural Maine community, Martha Ballard’s obituary read simply, “Died, in Augusta, Mrs. Martha, consort of Mr. Ephraim Ballard, aged 77 years.”
Had her descendants not saved and bound the jumbled sheets of her diary, her life would almost certainly have gone completely unremarked. In those ink-stained pages, Ballard had written an astonishing 10,000 entries detailing her life and work over a period of 27 years.
She wrote almost daily, usually about commonplace things like the weather, the progress of the garden, community events and the historic happenings of the time, but she also wrote about the many children she helped to deliver as midwife.
We don’t know for sure where Ballard learned midwifery, but it was most likely as an observer at the bedside. This was during what historian Laura Thatcher Ulrich, Ph.D., calls a time of “social childbirth,” when neighbors, female relatives and midwives might all attend a birth.
An observer would steadily increase her involvement until a day came when the experienced midwife was delayed or unavailable and the observer took over.
Ballard was unusual in that she could not only read (in that era, many girls were taught enough to read the Bible), but also write, using ink she made herself and quills taken from the geese she kept.