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

 

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:

 

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

 

 

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

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: