Agnodice circa 4th century BCE
Art by Intagliogia (tumblr)
Midwifery is a branch of medicine traditionally reserved for women. As medicine evolved into an academic discipline, female practitioners such as midwives were often pushed out. When Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE) founded his school at Cos, he limited female students to an auxiliary program in obstetrics and gynecology. After Hippocrates’s death, the leaders of Athens discovered some female medical practitioners performed abortions and taught contraceptive techniques. In response, the city fathers barred all women from practicing medicine and made working as a female medical practitioner a capital crime. Maternal and perinatal mortality skyrocketed as many Greek women were unwilling to have their baby delivered by a male physician
A young Athenian woman of this period, Agnodice disguised herself as a boy in order to study medicine with Herophilus in Alexandria. After qualifying as a physician, Agnodice was called on to attend a difficult birth. Concerned for her modesty, the mother was unwilling to accept the help of a male physician so Agnodice exposed her body to show she was a biological woman. The mother gratefully accepted Agnodice’s help and as word spread of this rogue female physician, Agnodice’s practice grew.
Jealous that this young physician had become so popular so quickly, Athenian physicians began to accuse Agnodice of seducing her patients. In order to defend herself from these charges, Agnodice publicly revealed her body to show her biological sex. Agnodice was put on trial for violating the law banning female physicians, a crime that carried the death penalty. A mob of female supporters rallied to her defense and Athenian leaders were so moved that they not only spared Agnodice’s life, they changed the law so that female physicians could treat female patients.
Some believe that Agnodice is a mythical figure. There are no known contemporary accounts of Agnodice’s life. She first appears in Gaius Julius Hyginus’s Fabulae, a collection of fables from the first century BCE. Furthermore, the name Agnodice means “chaste before justice” which is in keeping with the ancient Greek practice of naming fictional characters after their virtues. The story of Agnodice’s life may be a parable to understand the need for female physicians such as Aspasia who are known to have practiced medicine around the time Fabulae was composed.