A classic in the history of medicine: “A Midwife’s Tale”

Barbara Brookes

A Midwifes Tale‘I was Calld to Mrs Howards this morning for to see her son. Find him very low. Went from Mrs Howards to see Mrs Williams. Find her very unwell. Hannah Cool is there. From thence to Joseph Fosters to see her sick Children. Find Saray & Daniel very ill. Came home went to the field & got some Cold water root. Then Calld to Mr Kenydays to see Polly. Very ill with the Canker. Gave her some of the root. I gargled her throat which gave her great Ease. Returned home after dark. Mr Ballard been to Cabesy. His throat is very soar. He gargled with my tincture. Find relief & went to bed comfortably.’

This is one of the extracts of Martha Ballard’s diary that opens the first chapter of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer prize winning A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Knopf, 1990). It is a book I have just returned to, to understand caring for the sick in late eighteenth century New England. It is a superb work that unfolds the layers of the diary – viewed by others as a prosaic document – to reveal the work of women as healers. Ulrich’s book takes us into Martha Ballard’s world, where the midwife crossed icy rivers, slogged through snowdrifts and tumbled off horses in making her way to parturient women. When not attending births, Martha attended to her household and garden, weaving cloth, cooking and growing herbs that were then used for tinctures and poultices. It is a classic in the history of medicine.

Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.

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