By Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Wednesday July 10, 2013 - 08:47:00 AM

If you enjoyed PBS’ ‘Call The Midwife’ and want to know more about Jennifer Worth, RN RM, read on. You can also go to YouTube for an April 14, 2009 interview with her plus lots of related photographs. 

Jennifer Lee was a British nurse and musician. After leaving school at 15 she learned shorthand and typing and became grammar school head’s secretary. She then trained as a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, and moved to London for midwifery training. She was hired as a staff nurse at London Hospital in Whitechapel, an East End poor and working-class neighborhood, known for being the location of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in the late 1880s. Today’s residents are of varied ethnic origin, primarily Bangladeshi Bengali

With an Anglican community of nuns, she worked to aid the poor. She wrote about her work as a midwife practicing in the poverty-stricken Docklands of the 1950s. Later, she became a ward sister at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in Bloomsbury, London and then at the Marie Curie Hospital in Hampstead. She married in 1963, and had two daughters. 

Jennifer Lee Worth retired from nursing in 1973 to pursue her interest in music. Appointed a licentiate of the London College of Music, she taught piano and singing, and in 1984 obtained a fellowship. She performed as a soloist and with choirs throughout Britain and Europe. And she began writing. The first volume of her memoirs, ‘Call the Midwife’, was published in 2002. It became a bestseller when it was reissued in 2007. The trilogy sold almost a million copies in the UK. 

Worth was 76 years old when she died, in 2011. She had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer earlier that year. In 2012, BBC One commenced broadcasting the ‘Call The Midwife’ television series, created by Heidi Thomas and based on Worth’s three books: ‘Call the Midwife’, ‘Shadows of the Workhouse,’ and ‘Farewell to The East End.’ Jessica Raine plays Jenny Lee, and Vanessa Redgrave provides the voice narration of the elder Jennifer Worth-Jenny Lee. 

Midwife Jenny Lee had been present in the first moments of life. Nurse Jennifer Worth went on to witness the experiences of patients approaching the end of their lives. As a nurse and ward sister, she often encountered poignant life and death situations that evoked great warmth, humor and humanity-- from the businessman who set up office in a hospital broom closet, to the family divided by a decision no one could make. Reflecting on her later experiences caring for the terminally ill, she asked ‘In the Midst of Life: Is There Such a Thing as a Good Death?’ in her fourth volume, published in 2010. 

There appear to be no copies of ‘In the Midst of Life: Is There Such a Thing as a Good Death?’ in the UC Berkeley library nor in local public libraries’ collections other than the Sausalito Public (MARINet) system. Sausalito’s copy is in circulation, which just shows to go that elsewhere ‘In the Midst of Life…’ has been overlooked, to say the least. The book can be ordered through Amazon, which also provides online the table of contents, index, photos, and the first pages. 

Last year a GoodReads user (apparently a British physician) commented, “Although all her other books are lighthearted anecdotes, this one is much deeper and darker. It deals with the subjects of death and dying, and in particular the medicalisation of death and our loss of acceptance of death as a culture. It details the invention of palliative care and the introduction of CPR into medical practise, and is based on her own personal experiences as well as interviews with others who have been bereaved in various circumstances. I found it very thought provoking and it challenged me to consider where I stand on the subject of death, both as a person and as a doctor in training. It deals with people's right to choose how they die and making sure that these wishes are communicated to friends and family. Although it is, by nature, a very sad book, it's also wonderful. There are some real tales of joy in it, and it is engagingly written without being preachy or overly medical. I can highly recommend it, although it may be upsetting to people who are expecting more of her lighthearted work, or who have been recently bereaved…” 


Martha Moore Ballard was a midwife in an earlier era and in a very different locale. Born in Massachusetts in 1735, she lived most of her 77 years in rural Maine, said to have three seasons: black flies, snow and mud. ‘A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812’ is one of Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1938- )’s several literary accomplishments. The 1990 book made a grand sweep of the profession’s prizes, including the Pulitzer for History, Bancroft Prize in American History, Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Book Prize, an American Association for the History of Medicine Medal, and several others. Ulrich’s ‘A Midwife's Tale…’ and her 2007 ‘Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History’ are in the local public library’s collection. 

The diary itself eventually came into the care of Martha Ballard’s great-great-granddaughter, Mary Hobart, one of America’s first female physicians and the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society. Hobart graduated from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1884, the year that she received the diary. In 1930, she donated it to the Maine State Library, where it faded away. After all, what was so great about yet-another woman’s diary? Which was, in fact, the reaction Ulrich got when she discovered it buried there. And her initial attempts to get recognition of its historic and methodological value were rejected – nothing special, same old same old. 

Ulrich persevered for eight years, re-searching the diary’s 9,965 entries, applying comparisons and mark-up to create a landmark in women's labor history. (This type of hand-work is pictured in the motion picture and video.) Ulrich interwove an individual’s daily life with her society and times-- the role of women in the household and local market economy, the nature of marriage and sexual relations, aspects of medical practice, and the prevalence of violence and crime in the early American republic. She provided scholars with insights into the life of an American rural lay healer around 1800, resting on the words of the woman herself. 

Ballard used her diary as an accounting book and to keep records of her medical practice. For 27 years, from 1785 to 1812, she wrote in it every day. Many of her early entries were brief; later, they became longer and detailed. She started each with the weather and the time. For example, “May 11, 1797 it is now 11h Evn, my family have been in bed 2 hours". Each chapter of ‘A Midwife’s Tale…’ represents an aspect of woman’s work in the home and community in the late 18th Century. Ulrich pursues and interprets the terse and circumspect diary entries, e.g. medical practice and prevalence of violence and crime. By showing clearly the economic contributions that midwives made to their households and local communities, and demonstrating the organizational skill of multitasking as a source of female empowerment, the book revised the understanding of prescribed gender roles. 

Martha Ballard recorded her arduous work and domestic life in Hallowell on the Kennebec River, District of Maine. She wrote with a quill pen and homemade ink (pictured in the motion picture and video), recording numerous babies delivered and illnesses treated as she traveled around the Massachusetts frontier by horse and by canoe, as she “sank to the bottom” of the mud. There were struggles and tragedies within her own family: of nine children born between 1756 and 1779, three were lost to a diphtheria epidemic. The end of her life was cold and lonely. In her final diary entry, she “made a prayer adapted to my case.” 

‘A Midwife's Tale’ was subsequently developed into a docudrama film for the PBS American Experience series, with Ulrich serving as a consultant, script collaborator, and narrator. PBS Home Video made ‘A Midwife’s Tale’ available in video and DVD formats, 89 minutes in color. Actor Kaiulani Sewall Lee (1950- ) is midwife Martha Ballad. The movie intercuts between reenactments of Ballard doing her midwifery and related tasks and chores, and Ulrich working on her book. There are clear comparisons between the work of these two women. "When I finally was able to connect Martha's work to her world, I could begin to create stories." Wonderful.