Friday, 10 July 2009

The Life of Martha Ballard, based on her diary 1785-1812: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

To continue the medical theme started by Thackery T. Lambshead...

Martha Ballard was a New England midwife whose practice straddled the turn of the 19th century. Unusually, she kept a diary. A fairly tedious diary, it must be said: endless lists of who visited and what was growing in the garden. But in the hands of skilled social historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, it comes alive.

Each chapter is headed by a short section of diary; and then the rest of the chapter discusses, explains and enlarges on Martha's terse prose, adding details from other documents (notably the diary of Henry Sewell, but also court and town records).

Some of the content is heart-breaking: one chapter covers the murder of a family by the father; another describes the death of a child from a scald. There are some gruesome details -- a lot of puking up and passing of worms.

Much of it is fascinating, too: Martha Ballard's love-hate relationships with the town's doctors; the use of medicinal herbs; a barter economy; as well as hints at unrest between settlers and land owners.

It reminds me rather of Anne Hughes' Diary (except the provenance of Martha Ballard's diary is impeccable).

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