Agnodice was born into a wealthy Athenian family and had one ambition; to become a doctor. Intelligent, rich and hardworking, the only thing that stood in her way was the law. In 4th Century Athens, it was a capital crime for a woman to study or practice medicine.
Being blessed with a can-do attitude and enough money to travel abroad, Agnodice left Greece for Egypt, where women actively took part in healthcare. She studied anatomy and midwifery in Alexandria under famous doctor and scientist Herophilos. Eventually she was ready to return to Athens. Knowing the law, Agnodice cut her hair short and wore men’s clothes when she arrived home, where she began to treat the women of Athens.
The story goes that one day Agnodice was passing a house when she heard a woman in the throes of labour. She immediately came to the woman’s aid, but was turned away because women in Athens were ashamed to have a male doctor attend them. Agnodice then revealed that she was, in fact, female, and was able to treat the woman successfully.
This experience was typical for Athens at the time, where women often suffered and died needlessly rather than see a male doctor. Soon, word got out that Agnodice was practicing, and she became the most popular physician in the city.
The men of Athens became suspicious. The male doctors accused Agnodice of seducing their female patients and taking away their trade, and she was brought to trial before the husbands of the women she treated. Seeing no way out, Agnodice revealed her true sex – unfortunately this now meant that her crime warranted execution. Before judgement could be passed, a mob of women arrived at the trial. They berated their husbands and praised Agnodice, who had saved many of their lives.
Following a debate, Agnodice was acquitted and the law of Athens was changed to permit female physicians. Agnodice became a symbol for the trust and comfort shared between women, and in the 17th century her story became used by midwives defending their trade against other male-dominated areas of medicine.
Fabulous Female Physicians – Florence Kirsh and Sharon Kirsh
Women in Medicine – University of Virginia
The Art and Artifice of Agnodice – Jackie Rosenheck
Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic (pg. 29-28)