Martha Jane Hackett, multilingual nurse-midwife

Martha Jane Hackett held a newborn that she delivered.

Small blankets and tiny hats could be found everywhere in the Watertown home of Martha Jane Hackett, who kept them on hand for babies she delivered as a nurse-midwife. She kept herself supplied by knitting brightly colored caps when she wasn’t calmly coaching mothers through labor.

In delivery rooms at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, she massaged lower backs during painful moments and guided mothers through their first minutes with newborns. And frequently, friends and colleagues said, she told patients: “Babies know what they are doing. Trust your baby, trust your body.’’

Having lived in Myanmar as a child and in Hong Kong as an adult, she could offer advice in multiple languages. For new mothers in Boston’s Chinatown, however, Ms. Hackett was as much mediator as interpreter between doctors and patients.


“She had a lot of compassion in her heart to serve the underserved,’’ said Eugene Welch, executive director of South Cove Community Health Center in Chinatown.

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Ms. Hackett, who worked for more than three decades at South Cove, where she formerly directed the ob/gyn department, died March 1 in her Watertown home of complications from cancer. She was 68.

By her own estimate, she helped deliver about 1,000 babies, and according to South Cove, she was among the first certified nurse-midwives in Massachusetts to receive prescription-writing privileges.

“She helped a lot of people and a lot of babies come into this world,’’ Welch said.

Long before a mother-to-be’s first contraction, Ms. Hackett helped women understand how to keep babies healthy in utero. She did so, colleagues said, in ways that were culturally sensitive to the many women from other countries who sought care at the South Cove Community Health Center.


In an age when induced labor, epidurals, and caesarean sections are not uncommon, Ms. Hackett patiently explained each procedure to her patients and advocated for them, if necessary, when they interacted with doctors. Although she respected prevailing medical wisdom, friends and colleagues said, Ms. Hackett believed that natural processes were the preferred outcome.

She supported, just as strongly, those in her own profession.

“We’ve been struggling since 1977, when legislation passed allowing us to practice in Massachusetts, to get to the point where what we do is not seen as antagonistic,’’ she told the Globe in 1990, referring to the law that allows nurse-midwives to practice under the supervision of physicians.

Ms. Hackett, who was known to most as Marty, was born in Littleton, N.H., the daughter of American Baptist missionaries. Beginning when she was 3, she lived with them in Burma, now Myanmar, for about a decade. As a child, she later told friends, she saw firsthand the anguish experienced by people facing economic hardships.

“She understood suffering, and that gave her a tremendous capacity for compassion and to be calm with people and give them confidence in what they were doing, that they could make it,’’ said longtime friend Carol Rinehart of Northampton, for whom Ms. Hackett served as a midwife. “She was so far from naïve, or idealistic, and her sense of justice and mercy came from an understanding that had great depth.’’


When she was not clad in a white lab coat and scrubs, Ms. Hackett often wore colorful garments she acquired on biannual visits to Myanmar.

On those journeys, she often brought theological materials and medical supplies, and she established a fund in her family’s name to provide support for orphans and the elderly, a seminary, and churches.

For decades she was a member of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, singing in the choir, and holding a variety of offices. She advocated for racial and gender justice, friends said, and for congregations to be welcoming and affirming of clergy and laity, regardless of sexual orientation.

Friends said that on Feb. 26, a few days before Ms. Hackett died, she attended the Sunday service and the dedication of a dogwood tree that was planted next to the church in her honor.

Ms. Hackett studied at the Newton-Wellesley Hospital School of Nursing, and became certified as a nurse-midwife. She also spent three years in Hong Kong, where she learned to speak Cantonese. Later, as the immigrant population in Boston’s Chinatown included more Mandarin-speaking residents, she learned enough of that dialect to understand patients.

“She always smiled, and she’d never get angry with the patients,’’ said former colleague Susanna Leung, who added that Ms. Hackett “understood what the patients’ wishes were.’’

Though Ms. Hackett was primarily based at the South Cove Community Health Center, she helped deliver babies at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Other nurse-midwives, such as former colleague Dong Huang, said Ms. Hackett “was a great teacher to anybody. She taught me everything I needed to learn.’’

With doctors often moving from new mother to new mother quickly due to scheduling, “a lot of patients preferred to see her because she gave them time and was very careful, and was not only physically but emotionally supportive,’’ Huang said.

Other colleagues admired Ms. Hackett’s efforts as she tried to change rules and established approaches in order to better suit patients’ needs.

In 1990, Ms. Hackett spoke to the Globe about the frustration she and others shared as they attempted to address Boston’s infant mortality rate for black babies, which at the time was three times as high as for white babies.

“One thing we tried to do on the infant mortality task force a few years ago was establish uniform prenatal standards,’’ she said in the interview. “Physicians put a kibosh on that quick. They told us, ‘If you make actual standards of care it could be used against us in court in a malpractice suit.’ ’’

“As a colleague, I really respected her,’’ said former colleague Lily Moh. “She would speak her mind.’’

A service has been held for Ms. Hackett, who leaves her brother William, of Salzburg, Austria.

Even at South Cove Community Health Center, her professional home for more than 30 years, Ms. Hackett did not hesitate to bring up concerns.

Among her initiatives was advocating for a mammography unit, which was put into place a little less than a decade ago. About 4,000 mammograms now take place yearly at the clinic, Welch said.

“If she was trying to convince me to do something, as she’s coming down the hallway, she would be waving her finger, getting my attention,’’ Welch said. “She was certainly not a wallflower when she had something to say.’’

Emma Stickgold can be reached at