Professor of History Paves Way for Fine Film

The Making of 'A Midwife's Tale' Film produced and written by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt Based on the book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

"WELL, I WISH IT WERE A MORE dramatic story..." So begins Professor of History Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in describing the discovery of the diary that led to her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Midwife's Tale. On the contrary, her fifteen-year journey from the discovery of eighteenth-century midwife Martha Ballard's diary to the Boston premiere of Laurie Kahn-Leavitt's film production of her story, is a tale in itself.

Ulrich, who raised a family of five while making her way through graduate school part-time, stumbled across the diary of Martha Ballard at the Maine State Library while researching another project. The culmination of eight years of work on the diary is "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812."

First Came the Book...

"My first task was to find a way to discover the patterns of her life through this kind of unwieldy source," explained Ulrich. "And then the second process was linking the diary to a whole range of other sources that helped me build a world around the diary."

Ulrich's painstaking efforts were recognized in 1991 with the Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as more academic awards including the Bancroft.


When asked about her reaction to such critical and popular success, she responds, "Oh - surprised, shocked, overwhelmed, all of those things. This wasn't something I expected in any way, shape or form. It really changed my life. All this attention - I thought of myself as doing something that I thought was important that might be interesting to a particular marginal group. It was really astonishing to me that something like women's history, sort of a modest enterprise, would make a difference in our definition of history in general."

A Movie is Born

Producer Kahn-Leavitt, who came up with the idea of the film project, actively searched for material on pre-photographic history while working for WGBH on the American Experience series for PBS.

"One day I read about this book based on this incredible, massive 27-year diary of a midwife and a healer. And I went out the next day and I bought it and dovoured it," Kahn-Leavitt explained.

Thus began Kahn-Leavitt's five-year quest to bring Martha's life to film. Her vision was "to show a real person with this massive cryptic diary."

"Through her work with this diary, she becomes increasingly connected to this woman in the past as she pieces it all together and earns her entry into that world."

Like the book that engendered it, the film crosses many boundaries in terms of genre. Ultimately, it seems to lie on the documentary side of docudrama, because so much of it is based on truth.

But Kahn-Leavitt stresses, "I don't care what it is, it's its own beast."

Ulrich agrees: "The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History, and I think that is appropriate... it's not a conventional biography, it's really a work of social history."

A Wrinkle in Time

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