During the summer of 1787 in
Hallowell, Maine, Martha Ballard found herself busy with two of her major
duties as a midwife: delivering babies and tending the sick. The entries
from the diary for the months of June, July, August, and September show
the evidence of Group A hemolytic streptococci attacking the populace
as scarlet fever, puerperal fever, and infected wounds. Working before
germ theory had explained the connection, Martha had no way of knowing
that "strep," as we call it, was responsible for all three manifestations
in her patients.
The symptoms of scarlet fever
were sore throat, rash, and possible death. Martha and her contemporaries
called it canker rash. Puerpural fever occurred after childbirth and could
kill both mother and child. No antibiotics were available to help with
scarlet fever, puerpural fever, or infected wounds. People did not even
know that cleanth and antiseptic conditions could stem the spread of the
disease from patient to patient.
Look in the following entries
for evidence of an epidemic. A subplot in one entry involved Martha herself.
On August 13 she noted the death of little Willy McMaster, whose mother
was pregnant with another child. Martha wrote, "Poor mother, how Distressing
her case..." Perhaps the case brought back the memory of the summer of
1769 when Martha lost three of her own young children to a diptheria epidemic
in Oxford, Massachusetts. Like Mrs. McMaster, Martha birthed her daughter
Hannah (on August 6, 1769) during an epidemic that took another child's
life. Check the August 6, 1787 entry, when Martha noted Hannah's birthday.
For more, see the film A
Midwife's Tale and Chapter One of the book A Midwife's Tale.