Agnodice – 4th Century BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

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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.

Agnodice engraving - Licensed by Wikimedia Commons

Agnodice engraving – Licensed by Wikimedia Commons

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.


References:

Fabulous Female PhysiciansFlorence 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)

On Wikipedia:

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Peseshet – c.2500 BCE – Sais, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

‘I have come from the school of medicine at Heliopolis, and have studied at the woman’s school at Sais, where the divine mothers have taught me how to cure diseases…’

Peseshet

Like her countrywoman and predecessor Merit-Ptah, Peseshet was a woman working in the medical profession. We know of Peseshet from her personal stela found in the tomb of her son, Ahkhethetep, which calls her ‘Lady Overseer of the Female Physicians’.

It is believed that ‘female physician’ means midwife, as there is no Egyptian word for midwifery. During Pesehet’s time there was a medical school at Sais which educated female students of gynecology and obstetrics. It is not a stretch to assume that this is where Peseshet herself worked and taught.


Notes:

Stele/Stela – Funeral slab inscribed with a person’s name.


References:

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

Disease and Medicine in World HistorySheldon J. Watts 

On Wikipedia

Merit-Ptah – c.2700 BCE – Memphis, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

Merit-Ptah

Over five thousand years before Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to obtain a degree in medicine, there was Merit-Ptah – chief court physician.

Merit-Ptah (beloved of Ptah – the creator god) is identified as a ‘Chief Physician’ in a hieroglyphic carving near the pyramid of Saqqara, in the old Egyptian kingdom’s capital of Memphis. Hers is the first woman’s name in history associated with medicine and science.

As a Swnwt (doctor), she was a highly skilled and educated person. Egyptian medical knowledge was the envy of the ancient world; even the Greek writer Homer said:

“the Egyptians are more skilled at medicine than any other art”

An Egyptian Swnwt might specialise in dentistry, proctology, ophthalmology or gastroenterology and will have taken part in a number of religious and magical rites.

In ancient Egypt, healing practices were associated with religious ritual and though we do not know Merit-Ptah’s specialism, we know that her son went on to become High Priest of Memphis.

Even today, Merit-Ptah continues to remain relevant in scientific fields – she has a crater on Venus named after her!


References:

Article in the New Scientist 19th February 1987 

Women in Leadership: Contextual Dynamics and Boundaries – Karin Klenke

On Wikipedia: