Asclepigenia – fl.430 – Athens, Greece

Greece

Asclepigenia

Asclepigenia was the daughter of a philosopher called Plutarch, who headed the Neoplatonist school in Athens. He educated his daughter (and her brother, Hierius) in philosophy and mysticism. In time, (much like Hypatia in Alexandria) she too became a teacher.

Asclepigenia and her father followed a syncretic system which united traditional Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies with pagan ritual and magic.

When Plutarch died in 430, he passed the school onto his daughter. She taught metaphysics, cosmology and theology, all of which attempted to understand and predict the will of fate (or the gods) and influence the outcomes.

Asclepigenia is known to us largely because she taught the philosopher Proclus, and almost all of the information we have on her comes from The Life of Proclus by Marinus.


References:

Ancient Women Philosophers: 600 B.C.-500 A. D.M.E. Waithe

On Wikipedia:

 

Cleopatra the Alchemist – 3rd Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

 

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We do not know this woman’s real name, as ‘Cleopatra’ is assumed to be a pseudonym for a woman alchemist and philosopher who authored a number of alchemical texts.

She lived in Egypt and is associated with the same school of alchemy as Maria Prophetissima. Like Maria, Cleopatra’s work was concerned mostly with transforming substances through the processes of distillation and sublimation.

Three texts on alchemy are attributed to Cleopatra:

  • Εκ των Κλεοπατρας περι μετρων και σταθμων. (On Weights and Measures)
  • Κλεοπατρης χρυσοποια (Chrysopeoeia of Cleopatra)
  • Διαλογος φιλοσοφων και κλεοπατρας (A Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers)

The most famous of these texts is the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra which is a sheet of papyrus illustrated with symbols for gold making, assumed to be drawn by Cleopatra herself.

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The drawings include an ouroboros (a snake eating itself), an ancient symbol which represents eternity. The text describes the ouroboros as follows:

“One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions, and One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”

There is also a diagram of a dibikos, (an alchemical tool for distillation) and several images of stars and crescents.


Notes:

Not to be confused with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt.


References:

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

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

On Wikipedia:

Hypatia – c.351/370 – 415 – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Hypatia

In the centuries since her death, Hypatia has become an icon for women in education and scientific thought. Her story has been told and retold, casting her as a pagan seductress, a prim school ma’am, an enlightened philosopher and a tragic heroine. Her brutal and untimely death is often told in gory detail without recounting the facts of her life.

This is largely because (as with so many women in this era) little is known about the life of Hypatia which can be confirmed. We know that she was a highly intelligent woman with a first class classical Greek education. She lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and headed the Neoplatonic School there, teaching philosophy and astronomy. Most remarkably of all, Hypatia was a woman in charge of her own life and who made her own choices.

A gifted mathematician, she inherited her passion for the subject from her father, Theon Alexandricus. Following her education in Athens, she relocated to Alexandria, at the time the home of the world’s largest and most comprehensive library. She taught Greek philosophy, including the works of Plato and Aristotle to students from all walks of life.

Hypatia occupied a respected position in Alexandrian society. Most sources report that she was well respected and admired for her wisdom and dignity. She refused to marry, though there are stories in which she turns down proposals from her enamoured students. Hypatia’s single status and dedication to her career enabled her to move more freely through male dominated environments than other women at the time.

Socrates Scholasticus, a contemporary of Hypatia’s, describes her self-assured nature and how her advice was well regarded and sought after by the leading minds of Alexandria:

“On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”

Though no surviving work is attributed to Hypatia, classical scholars make mentions of a number of texts and commentaries which she may have collaborated on with her father.

Mort_de_la_philosophe_Hypatie

“Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria” (Source)

Hypatia’s murder took place in 415 in Alexandria. At the time there was an ongoing feud between the Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril. Cyril had demanded that all of the Jewish citizens of Alexandria be banished. Alexandria was a city of multiple faiths at the time – Hypatia’s students included pagans, Jews and Christians – and Orestes was outraged by Cyril’s violent actions.

As previously mentioned, Hypatia was often asked for advice by prominent citizens of the city, and in this case Orestes asked for her input. Unfortunately, by this point the feud would not be solved with reason or debate, and Cyril’s followers felt that Hypatia was siding against them. A mob attacked her and dragged her through the streets to their church, where they brutally killed and mutilated her.


In Fiction:

Literature and theatre:

  • Hypatie et Cyril is a French poem by Charles Marie Rene Leconte de Lisle

    Hypatia_(1900_Play)

    An actress, possibly Mary Anderson, in the title role of the play Hypatia, circa 1900. (Source)

  • Hypatia – or New Foes with an Old Face – Charles Kingsley (novel)
  • In the 1893 performance of the play Hypatia by Stuart Ogilvie (based on Kingsley’s book) Hypatia was played by Julia Neilson, then by Mary Anderson in 1900.
  • The Heirs of Alexandria series by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer portrays am alternate history in which Hypatia is converted to Christianity, saving her life.
  • Fable of Venice by Corto Maltese has Hypatia as an intellectual in pre-fascist Italy.
  • Ipazia, scienziata alessandrina(Hypatia: Scientist of Alexandria) by Adriano Petta
  • Hypatia y la eternidad(Hypatia and Eternity) by Ramon Galí is also set in an alternate history.
  • Azazil by Dr Youssel Ziedan
  • Francis Itty Cora by D. Ramakrishnan
  • Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egyptby Brian Trent
  • Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandriaby Ki Longfellow
  • In The Plot to Save Socratesby Paul Levinson and the sequel Unburning Alexandria, Hypatia turns out to have been a time-traveller from 21st century America.
  • Heresy: the Life of Pelagiusby David Lovejoy includes Hypatia’s death.

Film and Television:

  • 1987 Doctor Who serial Time and the Rani features a brief appearance from Hypatia.
  • Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980 and 2014).
  • Agora (2009) stars Rachel Weiss as Hypatia in a fictionalised version of her last years.

Art:

  • Hypatia has a place setting at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

Science:

  • 238 Hypatia is a main belt asteroid named after the philosopher.
  • Lunar crater Hypatia.
  • A genus of moth.

References:

Rejected Princesses: Hypatia

Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle – Kathleen Wider

Medieval Sourcebook: The Murder of Hypatia (late 4th Cent.) from Ecclesiastical History,Bk VI: Chap. 15 – Socrates Scholasticus

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

 

 

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:

Tapputi – c. 2000 BCE – Babylonian Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, Sumer

Tapputi

Tapputi, a perfumer, is not only the first known female chemist, but the first chemist of any gender known to history. Her title, Belatekallium, meant female overseer, which tells us that she worked at the royal palace in Mesopotamia.

The making of perfume or aromata was an important industry in ancient Mesopotamian life. The preparation of the materials was extensive and highly technical.

We know of Tapputi from a cuneiform tablet which bears her name as well as her own recipe for a perfume which describes using oil, flowers, myrrh and calamus to be distilled and filtered with water. This also is the first known reference to a still.

Full text:

If you prepare flowers, oil and calamus as a salve, and you have tested the flowers; you set up… a distillatory. You put good potable water [into a hairu pot]. You heat tabilu and put it in. You put 1 qa haminu, 1 qa iaruttu, 1 qa of good, filtered myhrr into the hairu put. Your standard in this is the water taken and divided. You operate at the end of the day and in the evening. It remains overnight. It becomes steeped.

"Illustration Acorus calamus0" by www.biolib.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illustration_Acorus_calamus0.jpg#/media/File:Illustration_Acorus_calamus0.jpg

“Illustration Acorus calamus” by http://www.biolib.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

You filter this solution… with a filter cloth into a hirsu pot at dawn, on the rising of the sun, you clarify from this hirsu pot into another hirsu pot. You discard the residue. You use 3 qa of purified Cyperus in the solution with the aromatics. Discard the inferior material. You put 3 qa myrrh, 2 qa pressed and filtered calamus in the solution with these aromatics… 1 ½ pure gullu… two beakers… small beakers… you filter… kanaktu in a sieve. You decant the oil in the hairu pout… in the solution [you rub that which was with the solution overnight] [you examine] the comminuted material. You remove [its bad part]. You filter this solution which [you clarified into a distillatory] … 3 qa… [you throw]… balsam into this solution in [a hirsu pot]. [you kindle a fire]. When the solution is heated for admixture, [you pour in the oil]. You agitate with a stirrer. [When the oil, solution, and aromatics] continue to dissolve, [you raise] the fire… you cover the distillatory on top. [you cool] with [water]. When the sun rises,[you prepare] a [container for] the oil, solution and aromatics.

You allow the fire under the distillatory to die down. You remove the distilled and sublimed substances from [the trough of the distillatory].

When the sun [rises],[if] they continue to dissolve in one another and [the fire rises], you cover the [top] of the distillatory. You cool. You prepare a flask for the calamus oil. You put a filter cloth over the flask. You remove the dregs and residue left in the distillatory.

This is the preparation of flowers, oil and calamus for [salve] for the king according to the recipe of Tapputi-Belatekallium, the perfumer.


References

  • Early Arabic Pharmacology – Martin Levy
  • Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic 

On Wikipedia:

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: