Feminine contributions in medicine throughout time must also include the significant advances women have made in academia, industrial, community and environmental health settings. Women have made indelible contributions to the advancement of human care. Because much of history left her out does not mean it is forgotten.
In the beginning of humankind the great mother Goddess was the composite image of the giver of all life – Venus of Willendorf.
Her large breasts and belly signified plentitude and she reigned in the hearts and minds of peoples throughout the world. The female for many millennia was held in high regard because of her reproductive abilities – she was the giver of life. Her survival meant the survival of the tribe. She was worshipped, honored for her gift of life and held in the highest esteem in most ancient cultures.
Because women were raising and nurturing the children and family she became the natural protectress of the weak, the sick, the wounded and the vulnerable. Her role was vital all over the globe in the small tribes and enclaves found throughout ancient times. Pictures, drawings and writings depicted women invoking healing rituals and using her power to heal disease.
For an example we can look at times in ancient Egypt where women held high status; they were high priestesses and prescribed herbal natural potions. Records have been found that tell of an Egyptian queen dynasty which began 4000 B.C.E. where the queens themselves were physicians.[Brooke, 1995]
Hygeia the Greek goddess of healing in the 4th century B.C. was a goddess way before her time. Hygeia and Panacea have symbolized prevention and cure. Each woman came from the Aesculapius family of healers (900 BCE). There have been numerous statues found of Hygeia with a snake coiled at her side – a symbol of feminine healing energy. [Brooke, 1995]
Agnodice was a Greek woman in Athens, who started a revolution by healing women. Because women were barred from medical schools, Agnodice disguised herself as a man and became educated. Her drive to become a trained physician was due to the fact that women were dying simply because they refused to be treated by a male practitioner. When she set up her practice and became successful, her male peers revealed her female identity. As a result she was jailed and sentenced to death for practicing medicine. Fortunately her female patients rallied and threatened mass suicide if she was killed. Agnodice was released and was permitted to practice with her limits set to help only women and children. This story is likely not an isolated one in ancient history and elicits the imbalance which inevitably occurs when domination prevails.
Venus of Willendorf image by Matthias Kabel