Revolutionary Healthcare

Posted on December 29, 2010


As a new year approaches and the debate over American health care brews, I thought it was important to look at how new Americans faced the challenge of health care at our founding.

Many will not have read about her in our school history books-but perhaps we should have. Martha Ballard was a business woman-she had a weaving business with her daughters, she was a farmer in that she raised sheep, vegetables and herbs and she was a midwife who provided all kinds of medical care to the citizens of  Hallowell on both sides of the Kennebec River in Maine pre-revolution until her death in 1812. She kept a journal of all of her tasks, including what the weather was like, who she serviced and what they paid her, completion of weaving yardage, and other daily work. (This journal is well documented in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich‘s book: A Midwife’s Tale.) It is unclear as to her educational background. Her uncle Abijah Moore was a 1726 Yale graduate and a physician and her younger brother Jonathon Moore was a 1761 Harvard grad. It is evident she had some schooling based on her journal-but spelling was not a great concern for her.

What was a great concern were her patients. She documented the great pains she took in traveling to get to those that needed her. In winter, the river often froze and she had would walk across it-and sometimes falling in, during her trek. She contracted fellow citizens to assist in her travels so that she was assured in making it to her destinations. In the spring, she had to deal with the flooding of the swollen river. Between 1785 and 1812-the period documented by her journal-she attended to 816 births. She often stayed overnight with her patients to assure the best care she could give. Many neighbors sought her out for her herbal remedies for colds and flu and other ailments. Sometimes they came to her, but often she traveled to them.

There was a more traditional doctor in Hallowell at the same time Martha was practicing-Daniel Cony. He was an example of the new medical profession that was beginning to be established. But midwives like Martha were still attending  most of the births and even providing most of the medical care. Over the years Martha practiced, she herself handled 60 percent of the births. Through the difficult times during the beginning of this country-she survived tough conditions to service her patients. Just a month before her death in 1812, she attended her last birth. She is an example of the uncelebrated patriot. In her journal, the description of her life was measured in the doing and nothing was trivial. This dedication to helping her neighbors was passed on down in her family to her niece, Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. The seeds of our great medical profession were laid by practitioners like her. Early Americans received health care from dedicated practitioners like Martha.  We owe her a huge debt. Government was not involved or needed. No one was denied care. Martha was not concerned about insurance status. Payment was what one could afford or goods were bartered. She saw a need in her community and she fulfilled that need. She exhibited the American quality of self-sufficiency.

I think of our current situation as we learn the consequences of this colossal health care bill that has just been created. How will it affect or maybe impede the good work of our doctors. Can they provide the care they feel a patient really needs? As Americans and caretakers of our liberty, we owe it to our fellow citizens to learn and to speak out about this law. Does it really help? Or because government would be more involved, does it put a strangle hold on the medical profession to provide the level of care demonstrated by those that established our wonderful medical traditions like Martha Ballard?

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