Agnodice – The First Woman Gynecologist

Everyone has heard of Hippocrates known as the Father of Western Medicine. By law only males practiced medicine around 400 BC. Historical tales are predominantly about what men did in ancient times but I want to refresh our consciousness about what women were doing all those years ago and reveal some phenomenal women of that time period .

Women were not just sitting around making babies and cooking over the camp fire. Because history has not recorded her activities should not discount her value. Digging around history books and online I have discovered some cool, feisty and powerful women. Agnodice, a contemporary of Hippocrates is a supreme example. As a Greek citizen she was struck by the fact that women did not like being treated by a male physician especially for female reproductive and genital issues. Agnodice witnessed women dying rather than have an unfamiliar man handle her medical needs. This is supported by a higher female death rate due to women refusing care from male doctors during this time period.
In the fourth century BC women were barred from entering medical schools. What did Agnodice do? She cut off her hair and disguised herself as a man, attended the Medical University in Alexandria , studied medicine and subsequently set up medical practice in Athens.

This is where is gets real interesting. Within no time her medical practice was teeming with patients – women of course. She could understand, treat and help her patients with the care they desperately needed and wanted (remember the times). When male practitioners got wise to her incognito ways, they reported her to the legal authorities.

Subsequently, she was arrested and sentenced to death (a common event) for practicing her craft of medicine. The conclusion of this story is by far the best yet. The women of her community were outraged by her arrest. Many of her clients were the wives and daughters of the judges and law makers who convicted and sentenced Agnodice. These brave women gathered together, protested and en mass threatened as a group to commit suicide if Agnodice were not released.

Fortunately it worked. Agnodice was released and was allowed to continue her practice of medicine but only for women and children. What a relief! She set a precedent that continued to have a ripple effect for that era of time.

The stories of women healers and their arduous journeys of practicing medicine through time is intriguing, yet often filled with truths, half truths or worse yet no recording of her work at all. Stories however factual, reveal the character and fortitude of some incredibly courageous women who have made such a difference. The “Old Wives Tales” so often discounted by scholars and historians really do hold truths of her endeavors.

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