Leoparda – 4th Century – Constantinople

Constantinople

Leoparda

Leoparda lived and worked at the court of Emperor Gratian as a gynaecologist, serving the medical needs of the women at the Byzantine court.

She was a respected doctor who we know about from a book by her colleague, the emperor’s physician, Theodorus Priscianus. Priscianus wrote a book on women’s medicine which was intended to teach women in medical professions.

Ad Timotheum fratrem. Book III: Gynaecea ad Slavinam was dedicated to Leoparda, as well as two other women, Salvina and Victoria. It also contains quotes from Aspasia, an earlier physician who specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology.


References:

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: L-ZMarilyn Bailey Ogilvie, Joy Dorothy Harvey

On Wikipedia:

 

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Aemilia Hilaria – c.300 – c.363 – Moselle, Gaul

France

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Aemilia Hilaria (Aemilia the cheerful) was so nicknamed because she was such a happy baby. She was born and educated as a Roman citizen in Roman Gaul, in an area which is now Moselle, France.

We know about her thanks to a poem written by her nephew, Ausonius, who remembered his aunt with great affection in a poem:

VI Aemilia Hilaria, my mother’s sister, an avowed virgin

You too who, though in kinship’s degree an aunt, were to me a mother,

must now be recalled with a son’s affection.

Aemilia, who in the cradle gained the second name of Hilarius, because,

Bright and cheerful after the fashion of a boy,

You made without pretence the very picture of a lad.

…[text missing] busied in the art of healing like a man.

You ever hated your female sex

And so there grew up in you the love of consecrated maidenhood.

Through three and sixty years you maintained it, and your life’s end was also a maiden’s end.

The poem describes an affectionate relationship between aunt and nephew.

Ausonius describes how Hilaria chose a life as a ‘dedicated virgin’ – that is to say she would never marry – in order to pursue a career as a physician. Based on the information from her nephew, it seems that Hilaria was successful in her work and lived a long life.


References:

Parentalia (VI)Ausonius

This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, 350 450 – Gillian Cloke

Women in Roman Law and Society – Jane F. Gardner

 

Metrodora – c.200 – 400 – Greece

Ancient Greece

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Among a huge number of historical women who leave behind no information on their lives, Metrodora has at least left us with her work. In two volumes and 63 chapters, On the Diseases and Cures of Women survives today and is the earliest surviving medical text known to be written by a woman.

A Greek physician, like Aspasia before her, Metrodora’s work covers a variety of medicine, including gynaecology. However, while the majority of women in medicine during the classical age tend to be midwives, Metrodora’s text does not touch upon obstetrics (pregnancy and childbirth), making her even more unusual.

It seems that rather than focus on the area of medicine traditionally considered ‘feminine’ – that is midwifery – Metrodora’s interests were in pathology; diagnosing diseases based on examination of organs, tissues and bodily fluids. There is little doubt that she was an experienced physician, and took a very ‘hands on’ approach to her work, in which she discusses performing examinations with her hands and fingers as well as tools such as the speculum.

Metrodora also differs from Aspasia in that she does not write about surgery – though this may be for two reasons; first that surgery was not widely practiced in Greece or Rome at this time; secondly we are possibly missing part of the work.

On the Diseases and Cures of Women is also the first text known to be written in the form of an alphabetical medical encyclopaedia, with lettered headings for quick reference. It was clearly considered very useful and was copied, translated and republished well into the medieval period.

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The Hippocratic Oath – Metrodora studied the medical writings of Hippocrates and explored them in her own work. Source.

Like other medical writers of the time, Metrodora had studied the work of Hippocrates and drew heavily from his theories. She was thorough in her studies, referring directly to Hippocrates writings rather than drawing from secondary sources written after his death.

The book also contains many of Metrodora’s own observations and contributions to medicine; she formed a classification system for vaginal discharges and theorised that some discharges were caused by rectal parasitic infection.

Though she left behind her life’s work, Metrodora very nearly lost her name altogether in the 16th Century. She cited a bibliographic reference within her text to a woman called Cleopatra, who late medieval translators confused with Cleopatra VII. This led to On the Diseases and Cures of Women being attributed to the famous queen in some versions.


References:

Women Healers and Physicians: Climbing a Long HillLilian R. Furst

A Companion to Women in the Ancient World Sharon L. James, Sheila Dillon

On Wikipedia:

 

Aspasia the Physician – 1st Century – Greece

Ancient Greece

Aspasia

Not to be confused by the earlier scholar and hetaera of the same name, Aspasia was a physician who worked in obstetrics and gynaecology.

There is nothing recorded about Aspasia’s life outside of a fragment cited by the physician to a Byzantium Emperor. This mentions her contribution to midwifery as she apparently developed a technique for rotating a foetus in a breech presentation.

It is also mentioned that Aspasia promoted preventive medicine for pregnant women, though there is no specific detail.

Ancient_Roman_relief_carving_of_a_midwife_Wellcome_M0003964

These two bare facts about Aspasia portray a very practical woman who sought common sense solutions to common problems faced by women. This differs from many celebrated male physicians of the time who often took a theoretical approach to healthcare.


References:

Women in science: antiquity through the nineteenth century: a biographical dictionary with annotated bibliography – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present – Sue Vilhauer Rosser

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Ancient Roman relief carving of a midwife Wellcome M0003964” by http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/29/0b/9da1fcb26bad168d8787912e39b5.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/M0003964.html.

Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons

 

 

Salpe – 1st Century BCE – Lemnos, Greece

Ancient Greece

Salpe

Salpe was a midwife from the Greek island of Lemnos. Her name and methods are known to us through the writing of historian Pliny.

As well as midwifery, Salpe offered a number of cures and remedies for other ailments including sunburn, stiffness and dog bites. Her main ingredients were saliva and urine which were believed to have natural healing powers.

Greek physician and their patient

Greek physician and their patient

Salpe was probably not a well-educated woman – she probably couldn’t read and had little contact with leading medical professionals of the time. Her brand of medicine was based on a mix of superstition, herbal cures, prayer and sympathetic magic.

As physicians were expensive, the common people of Lemnos relied upon women like Salpe to provide them with healthcare.  Whoever she was, Salpe’s remedies must have been widely known for her to have caught the attention of Pliny.

Some of Salpe’s remedies (do not try these at home!):

  • To cure the bite of a wild dog, wear the flux of the wool of a black ram contained in a silver bracelet.
  • For a numb (stiff) limb, spit into the bosom of the patient, or touch the upper eyelids with salvia
  • To strengthen the eyes, apply urine.
  • To cure sunburn, mix urine and egg white (preferably ostrich) and apply to the skin every two hours.
  • Feed a dog a live frog to stop it from barking.

References:

Woman’s Power, Man’s Game: Essays on Classical Antiquity in Honor of Joy K. King edited by Joy K. King, Mary DeForest

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the 20th Century – Marilyn Ogilvie, Joy Harvey

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

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


Image credits:

Medicine aryballos Louvre CA1989-2183 n2” by English: Clinic Painter (name-piece) – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011).

Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

 

 

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: