A Midwife’s Tale

Martha Ballard’s diary October 6th–10th, 1794
Image: DoHistory

Esteemed midwife Martha Ballard was fifty when she began to keep a diary—a unique and detailed record of life in 18th-century rural America that would grow to 10,000 entries and cover 27 years. On the day of the following entry in October of 1794, Ballard successfully delivered one of the 816 babies she would bring into the world during her career, but this one was not the smoothest of births. To her frustration, the family had also called on the services of one Benjamin Page, an inexperienced 23-year-old male doctor who had decided to introduce opium to the equation when it wasn’t needed.

The Diary Entry

[10th October 1794]

Birth David Sewalls Son

Cloudy. At Mr Sewalls, they were intimidated & Calld Dr Page who gave my Patient [20] drops of Laudanum which put her into Such a Stupor her pains (which were regular & promising) in a manner Stopt till near night when Shee pukt & they returnd & She was Delivd at 7h Evn of a Son, her first Born. I left her Cleverly at 10 & walkt home. I receivd 12/ as a reward.

Further Reading

Ballard’s story came to light in 1990 thanks to the book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, this invaluable book won multiple awards, including, in 1991, the Pulitzer Prize in History. You can read portions of the book here.


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