Reader Response Based on Film and Readings- Pioneer Women in Medical Front
The book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785-1812, was written by the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in reference to the diary of an 18th century American midwife and healer, Martha Moore Ballard (1735-1812). The documentary film, The American Experience, was based on the Ulrich’s book. During the period of 3 decades (from 1785-1812), Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her life as a midwife and healer and housewife with children. Her records illustrate struggles and tragedies that she faced within her family and the society as a whole during her midwifery practice. Initially, although the book did not receive any scholarship attention, as it was usually dismissed as quite repetitive and ordinary, like the historian Ulrich, scholars now see it as a first-hand account that provides unique information of lives of ordinary people during the 18th century. As far as medical history is concerned, the diary provides insights into cases of how women pioneers in medical field struggled and persevered. This essay explores and responds to the Ulrich’s book and the PBS documentary about how female pioneers in American medical practice, as represented by Martha, struggled and persevered with heroism.
Martha’s life is a clear reflection of responsible life of a medical practitioner. Martha largely carries out responsibilities towards others at home and at work. She can be seen in the film travelling dangerous paths and spending significant amount of time way from her home because she knows and feels how badly her clients could be suffering because of labor and birth pains. This would continue and slacken only later in life when she becomes old and ill. Since most of her clients were on the other side of the river, she had to cross it using a makeshift (Rodgers, “A Midwife’s Tale”). Sometimes, this river could experience ice jams, and she had to cross it by ice (Ulrich 2-4). As part of other responsibilities, she keeps on tracking developments in health in the society even when she is not involved with the sick. For instance, she advises her son Jonathan to father his illegitimate child because she understands psychological and physiological consequences of lack of or poor parenthood. Martha is aware that her neighbors are likely to be having increased sexual activities that have led to spiked birth rates. In her community too, she is concerned about how husbands and fathers such as Captain Purrinton are killing themselves (Ulrich 33-34). Although the book provides clear narrations of her story, with precise evidentiary entries of the diary, actions speak louder in the movie. It can be hard to forget about the real images seen in the documentary.
Another heroism of Martha as the pioneer of female medical practice in America can be noted in finding the true healing for her patients. In the film, although the specific purpose of onions in healing is not well illustrated, it can be conjectured that it was applied to the feet to draw out fever. The documentary has gone ahead to research on what part of the feet that it was applied to. From modern herbalists, it was applied on the ball of the angle to draw out fever (Rodgers, “A Midwife’s Tale”). Martha also knew how to manufacture pills, salves, syrup, ointments and teas. She could prepare oil emulsions (she called them “oil mulges”). She could also poultice wounds and dress burns. Martha treated many diseases and conditions that included sore throats, measles, frostbite, whopping cough, colic and dysentery, salt rhume and flying pans. Nonetheless, she could induce vomiting, reduce swelling, assuage bleeding, apply a blister and relieve toothaches (Ulrich 11). Above all, she delivered babies: She personally delivered 816 babies and she was present when more than 1000 babies were delivered (Ulrich 11). Notably, although the film may have been adopted from the book, film makers usually decide which details to exclude or include. Few details can be found in the documentary, but one can get full details in the book. However, although not explicitly expressed in the book, filmmakers would go ahead and ask locals what some details in the book implied so that they can supplement them to make the meaning clearer to the reader.
Martha is a hero in early American women medical practitioners when she shows above average competency in delivering and healing in a field dominated by men. Although men and women worked together to sustain the economy, women were mostly employed in domestic pastime jobs. Men like Henry Sewall could participate in the army and serve in law courts. Her husband and other men, despite being businessmen like mill owners or marine merchants, also belonged to other professions like surveying (Rodgers, “A Midwife’s Tale”). Ulrich (27) mentions that at the time when women were suffering from labor, the new scientific obstetrics was being promoted by male physicians only. Important obstetrics physicians of that time such as Daniel Cony wrote papers that did not mention or acknowledge any services of a woman. However, from the Ulrich’s mentions in the book and the documentary, these doctors just did supplementary works to those of midwives. It is important to mention that Martha and her peers not only did they help women to deliver, but they also provided much of the medical care they needed (Rodgers, “A Midwife’s Tale”; Ulrich 29). Although the book clearly indicates first hand evidences with their analyses, in documentary this theme is not well brought out; however, since Ulrich was involved in illustrating important parts of the casting, she has roughly illustrated this theme.
As a conclusion, Martha Moore Ballard presents a real case of heroism needed by medical practitioners in a male dominated field. Female pioneers in the medical field really struggled and persevered, but they never gave up their responsibilities for patients. A successful medical practitioner is the one who struggles and strives to find the best cures and cares for their patients. Despite being knowledgeable in the available medicine, Martha was apt with preparing specific medicine for certain patients. She could use both pharmaceutical and alternative (herbal) medicine. Female medical practitioners can naturally give best cares compared to their male counterparts. In the Martha’s case, male doctors offered only supplementary work.
Rodgers, Richard P. dir. “A Midwife’s Tale”. American Experience. PBS, 1998. Film.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–
1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990. Print.