Campus & Community

Delivering History

6 min read

What would Martha Ballard think of

Would she be puzzled that so much fuss was being made about a woman from rural Maine who died almost 200 years ago, unknown to any except her local community?

Or would she be pleased that the work she had done as a midwife and healer was finally being recognized and that the diary she kept faithfully from 1785 to 1812 had been saved from obscurity?

In any event, she would have to agree that the genesis of this superbly designed Website, which brings together original manuscripts, explanatory texts, maps, drawings, film clips, and sound, is something of a miracle.

Never mind the astonishment an 18th-century person would feel encountering the Internet; what is truly amazing is that a laconic, often cryptic log of daily events written with a quill pen and homemade ink would one day give birth to a Pulitzer Prize-winning book of women’s history by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a PBS movie, and now a Website designed to give users an in-depth look at the process of historical research.

The new Website, which will be launched tomorrow, Feb. 4, by the Harvard Film Study Center, is an interactive case study that allows users to experience the process of researching the life and world of an “ordinary” person from America’s past. The DoHistory Website also provides users with a practical set of guides to help them launch history projects of their own.

Martha Ballard, the central figure in this project, lived in Hallowell, Maine, on the Kennebec River, where she worked as a midwife and healer, traveling around the frontier community by horse and canoe. The diary she kept records the numerous babies she delivered, cases of illness she treated, her own family struggles and tragedies, local crimes and scandals, and echoes of far-off political events.

The diary was passed down in Martha’s family, eventually reaching her great, great granddaughter, Mary Hobart, one of America’s first female physicians. In 1930, Hobart donated the diary to the Maine State Library in Augusta.

It wasn’t until 1982 that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, now the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History, came upon the diary and realized that it offered a rare and unique perspective. Here was a day-by-day record of the Early Republic, seen not through the eyes of a politician or journalist, but by a woman whose occupation brought her into intimate contact with a wide circle of her fellow citizens, often at their moments of greatest crisis.

It took Ulrich eight years of research before she was able to decipher the diary and understand the full significance of its terse entries. The result was A Midwife’s Tale, published in 1990.

Soon afterward, film producer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt contacted Ulrich about making a film of the diary. The film, directed by Richard P. Rogers, senior research fellow and senior lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies and director of the Film Study Center, was released in 1997.

In 1998 construction of the DoHistory Website began, funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Maine Humanities Council, and the Virginia Wellington Cabot Foundation. Ulrich serves as an adviser to the project. Rogers is principal investigator.

According to Kristin Barlow ’94, a Website developer with training in social anthropology who served as the site’s producer, DoHistory’s distinction is that it gives users the experience of historical research in all its depth and complexity.

“Our site is narrow in scope, but deep,” she said. “Websites in general tend to be top-heavy. That is, the first couple of layers are rich, but then the content stops. DoHistory, on the other hand, is increasingly rewarding the deeper into it you go.”

According to Barlow, DoHistory’s strength is that is provides an environment in which users can learn to work with primary sources as an historian would.

“Other history sites tend to present a lot of historical documents, but little guidance on how to use them. We provide relatively fewer documents, but extensive guidance on how they should be used,” she said.

The Website contains Martha’s entire diary, comprising approximately 10,000 entries, in both the original handwritten version and a print transcription. Both versions are searchable by word or topic. For those who want to try their hand at deciphering the original manuscript with its eccentric spelling and abbreviations, a feature called Magic Lens makes it possible to pinpoint particular words or phrases in the original text and instantly see them in legible type.

The diary’s availability online is expected to cause excitement among scholars, said Barlow. One earth scientist has already begun using it to compile weather data that pre-date official records.

Two in-depth “Investigations” allow users to explore historical themes in extreme detail. One of them, “Martha and the Man-Midwife” spins off from the appearance of a Dr. Page in one of the entries.

He and Martha encounter one another at the bedside of a woman in labor. The doctor gives her laudanum (an opium-based drug), which temporarily quells her pains. Although Martha doesn’t come right out and say so, Ulrich infers from her entry that she considered Page a bungler.

The episode represents a conflict between traditional female midwives like Martha and a rising group of “man-midwives” (later called obstetricians) like Dr. Page. Their movement into what had been an exclusively female profession may have been responsible in part for a falling off of business during Martha’s later years.

Users can explore this theme by examining original documents relating to Dr. Page’s training and career, including his professional correspondence, obituary, lists of his books and other possessions, and advertisements for his services.

Another in-depth exploration, “One Rape, Two Stories,” uses court records and other official documents alongside Martha’s more colloquial reporting to present contrasting views of the rape of a woman in the community.

The Website also contains extensive information on the process of filming A Midwife’s Tale, with numerous clips from the film. There are also materials to help users get started doing their own historical research, with advice on using primary sources, doing oral history, searching deeds, and reading old grave markers.

“The Website is aimed at a general audience,” said Barlow. “But one of our goals was to try to turn people on to history, if not necessarily to do it, then at least to appreciate the process.”