During America’s colonial days, the nature of medicine was incredibly different, as was women’s influence within that sphere. Nonetheless, just as people pioneered America, so were there female trailblazers in the world of medicine.
Martha Ballard was born Martha Moore in 1735. She came to be known as an American housewife and healer, none of which would be as clear to us if it were without her extensively kept diary. With nearly thousands of entries, spanning nearly three decades, this diary has provided historians with incredible insight into how frontier women lived.
This inclusive diary stated that she delivered 816 babies over the 27 years that she wrote. She made note of the illness treated as she traveled the Massachusetts frontier (what is now the state of Maine). Noting that she made medicines and remedies from local plants and a few ingredients from a local physician. She took testimonies from unwed mothers for paternity suits, performed ‘dissections’ (autopsies), and carried out additional duties such as weaving and social visits.
Passed down from within the family, this diary eventually ended up in the hands of her great-great-granddaughter, Mary Hobart (one of America’s first prominent female physicians). Mary then donated the diary to the Maine State Library.
Having once considered unimportant, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich saw potential in this print and produced A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary 1785-1812 in order to help shed light on the nature of women’s work within the community at that time. Ulrich stated,
When I finally was able to connect Martha’s work to her world, I could begin to create stories.