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
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
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
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
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.