Rufaida Al-Aslamia رفيدة الأسلمية – th Century – Medina, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Embroidered portrait of Rufaida Al-Aslamia, head and shoulders. She is staring straight ahead and wearing a blue and white hijab.

Rufaida Al-Aslamia is considered the first Muslim nurse and social worker.

Born in Medina sometime in the 7th century, Rufaida’s family were among the first to have converted to Islam and it is said that she knew the prophet Mohammed personally.

Her father was a physician by trade, and taught his daughter the skills needed to care for the sick and wounded. At a time in history defined by a number of holy wars, Rufaida’s help was invaluable on the battlefield, and she cut her teeth in desert field hospitals.

Rufaida was also an excellent organiser and clearly a charismatic personality – in the highly male dominated field of medicine she was able to flourish and thrive. She trained other women in nursing, and introduced the first documented mobile care units which aimed to stabilise the wounded after battles and prepare them for further procedures.

Rufaida’s team of volunteer nurses were so successful that following one battle Mohammed ensured that she receive the same portion of war booty due to soldier who had fought – one of the earliest examples of equal pay.

In addition to her role in battlefield healthcare, Rufaida was interested in disease and its causes among ordinary people. She is recorded as having personally worked in poor communities encouraging hygiene and attempting to alleviate social problems which led to poor health.


References:

On Wikipedia:

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:

 

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

 

Elephantis – fl. late 1st Century BCE – Greece

Ancient Greece

Content warning: Sex, erotic art, sex work.

Writer, physician, midwife and author of an infamous sex manual…

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Elephantis was a woman with many talents. She was likely a sex worker, and is also noted by Pliny to have been a capable midwife (perhaps a useful skill in her line of work).

Elephantis shared her knowledge, authoring a manual on cosmetics, and another on abortive methods. But she is most notorious for her sex manual.

Her birth name is unknown; it was common for courtesans in classical times to take animal names as pseudonyms for their clients to know them by. It is even possible that there was more than one woman named Elephantis.

None of her works have survived, though they are referenced in other ancient texts. Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the Emperor Tiberius owned a complete set of Elephantis’ works – said to be written as poetry – as part of his extensive ‘erotic library’.

Pompeii-wall_painting

Ancient Roman erotic art fresco from a brothel in Pompeii

A poem in the Priapeia also refers to Elephantis’ sex manual:

“Lalage dedicates a votive offering to Priapus, bringing shameless pictures from the books of Elephantis, and begs him to try and imitate with her the variety of intercourse of the figures in the illustrations.”

There is a further epigram by the Roman poet Martial which reads:

“Such verses as neither the daughters of Didymus know, nor the debauched books of Elephantis, in which are set out new forms of lovemaking.”

Notes:

  • The Priapeia is a collection of ninety-five poems in various meters on subjects pertaining to the phallic god Priapus.
  • “Novae figurae” has been read as “novem figurae” (i.e., “nine forms” of lovemaking, rather than “new forms” of lovemaking), and so some commentators have inferred that Elephantis listed nine different sexual positions.

References:

The Twelve Caesars (Tiberius 43:2)Seutonius

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

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Pompeii-wall painting” by ancient artist, User:Okc~commonswiki – Own work photograph.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

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: