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No. 544:
Early Women Doctors

Today, women and medicine in the old world. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We know the ancients practiced some pretty fancy medicine. They usually passed it on by apprenticeship. We have few written records until 400 BC. That's when Hippocratic doctors finally wrote the first medical textbooks.

Those books tell us that women were active doctors. It was one of the few freedoms they had. Greek women couldn't even attend public meetings. Yet they did midwifery and healing. It was partly a matter of status. Some royal women learned and practiced medicine.

Hippocrates didn't take women in his main research center on the Island of Cos. But he ran another school in Asia Minor. There, women could study gynecology and obstetrics.

Then, after Hippocrates's death, Athenian lawmakers found women doctors doing abortions. So they banned women from medicine. They imposed the death penalty for violators. That sort of thing has been a cyclic scenario ever since.

After that, Greek women began losing access to medical care. Contemporary modesty made it hard for them to take their unique problems to male doctors. Deaths began rising among Greek women.

Then, in 300 BC, an Athenian woman named Agnodice disguised herself as a man. She went to the great University at Alexandria. When she came back, she brought the best training in those times. She set up a special practice treating women.

The other doctors were jealous. They still thought Agnodice was a man. They charged her with corrupting women patients. So she revealed that she herself was female. Now she faced the death penalty, not for corrupting women, but for practicing medicine.

So a well-organized mob of Athenian women went to the judges. They said that killing Agnodice was as good as killing them. Too many would die without her treatments.

The protest worked. The judges freed Agnodice. They let her go on practicing medicine. They also revoked the law, but under condition that women could treat only other women.

From then on, women were a strong force in Greek medicine. That influence continued into Rome. The next round of repression didn't begin until the fifth century. Then the cycle repeated. But that becomes another story for another day.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested how inventive minds keep working, even under the worst of conditions.

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Alic, M., Hypatia's Heritage. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, Chapter 2.