Martha Moore Ballard (1735 – 1812) was an American midwife, healer, and diarist.
Ballard was born in Oxford, Massachusetts in 1735, to the well educated family of Elijah Moore and Dorothy Learned Moore and married Ephraim Ballard in 1754. The couple had nine children between 1756 and 1779 and lost three of them to a diphtheria epidemic in Oxford in the summer of 1769. Ballard’s obituary was published on May 31, 1812, in Hallowell/Augusta, Maine.
Ballard was related to Clara Barton, known for her Civil War work and founder of the American Red Cross. Clara was the granddaughter of Ballard’s sister, Dorothy Barton.
Between 1785 and 1812, Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work and domestic life in Hallowell on the Kennebec River, District of Maine. The sometimes cryptic log of daily events, written with a quill pen and homemade ink, records numerous babies delivered and illnesses treated as she traveled by horse or canoe around the Massachusetts frontier in what is today the state of Maine. Her writing also illustrates struggles and tragedies within her own family, local crimes and scandals, and provides a woman’s perspective on political events then unfolding in the nascent years of the early American republic. Other aspects of society in the late 18th century and early 19th century, including daily activities, medical practices, religious squabbles and sexual mores, add color to Ballard’s account.
Ballard used her diary as an accounting book and to keep records of her medical practice. For 27 years, she wrote in it every day. There were a total of 9,965 entries. Many of her early records were short and choppy, but her later entries became longer and detailed. One includes the comment that children in New England were allowed to choose their romantic interest as long as they were in the same economic class, something which was rare at that time.
She always started her entries with the weather, and then the time. For example, from an entry in Martha Ballard’s diary, she wrote “May 11, 1797 it is now 11h Evn, my family have been in bed 2 hours”. Her very last diary entry states, “made a prayer adapted to my case.”  The diary was kept in her family, eventually coming into the care of her great-great-granddaughter, Mary Hobart, one of America’s first female physicians who graduated from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1884, the same year that she received the diary. Hobart was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society. In 1930, Hobart donated the diary to the Maine State Library in Augusta.
A Midwife’s Tale
For many years historians did not give considerable attention to Martha Ballard’s diary, generally dismissing it as repetitive and ordinary. After eight years of research, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich produced A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812:
“When I finally was able to connect Martha’s work to her world, I could begin to create stories.”
Ulrich’s history is an intimate and densely imagined portrait of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard, and provides a vivid examination of ordinary life in the early American republic, including the role of women in the household and local market economy, and the nature of marriage and sexual relations. Each chapter in A Midwife’s Tale represents one aspect of the life of a woman in the late 18th Century. The overriding theme is the nature of women’s work at that time, in the context and community. Supporting documents construct Ulrich’s interpretation of terse and circumspect diary entries, dealing with medical practice and the prevalence of violence and crime.
In 1991, “A Midwife’s Tale” received the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, the John S. Dunning Prize, the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women’s History, the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize, the Society for Historians of the Early Republic Book Prize, the William Henry Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine, and the New England Historical Association Award. Later, the PBS series “The American Experience” developed “A Midwife’s Tale” into a documentary film, for which Ulrich served as a consultant, script collaborator, and narrator. It was directed by Richard P. Rogers, and produced by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt. Actress Kaluani Sewell Lee played Martha Ballard. When filming the series, details such as location were given close attention. The production crew chose King’s Landing Historical Settlement in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island to capture Maine’s three seasons: “black flies, snow and mud.” The actors wore mud-soaked shoes below historically-accurate costumes. The music in the film, played by the ensemble Orison, included shape note singing by the Word of Mouth Chorus.