Agnodice of Athens is generally credited with being the ‘first known female midwife’. The tale of her life suggests that she disguised herself as a man, was educated under one of the key medical practitioners of her time and went on to practice medicine in ancient Athens.
When she was tried for practicing medicine illegally, the story goes, the women of Athens defended Agnodice and ultimately earned the legal right to become physicians.
The tale of Agnodice has been oft-cited in the 2,000 or so years since. Particularly in the medical world, her life has become a symbol of female equality, determination and ingenuity.
The truth is, however, it remains unclear as to whether Agnodice actually existed, or if she was simply a convenient device through which to channel stories of myth and overcoming adversity. We will likely never know, but it makes for a good story.
Here are 8 facts about Agnodice of Athens.
1. Only one ancient reference to Agnodice is known to exist
The 1st-century Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus (64 BC-17CE) wrote a number of treatises. Two survive, Fabulae and Poetical Astronomy, which are so poorly written that historians believe them to be a schoolboy’s notes on Hyginus’ treatises.
The story of Agnodice appears in Fabulae, a collection of biographies of mythical and pseudo-historical figures. Her story comprises no more than a paragraph in a section called ‘Inventors and their Inventions’, and it is the only ancient description of Agnodice known to exist.
2. She was born into a wealthy family
Agnodice was born in the 4th century BC into a wealthy Athenian family. Appalled at the high mortality rate of infants and mothers during childbirth in ancient Greece, she decided she wanted to study medicine.
The story states that Agnodice was born into a time that forbade women from practicing any form of medicine, especially gynaecology, and that to practice was a crime punishable by death.
3. Women had been midwives before
Women were previously allowed to be midwives in ancient Greece and had even had a monopoly on female medical treatment.
Childbirth was frequently overseen by close female relatives or friends of the expectant mother, many of whom had undergone labour themselves. This position became increasingly formalised, with women who were experts at supporting others through birth becoming known as ‘maia’, or midwives. Female midwives began to flourish, sharing extensive knowledge about contraception, pregnancy, abortion and birth.
The story goes that as men began to recognise the capabilities of midwives, they began to clamp down on the practice. They were worried about women’s ability to tamper with potential lineage and were generally threatened by women’s increasing sexual liberation granting them more of an ability to make choices about their bodies.
This repression was increasingly formalised with the introduction of schools of medicine founded by Hippocrates, ‘the Father of Medicine’, in the 5th century BC, which barred women from entry. At around this time, midwifery became punishable by death.
4. She disguised herself as a man
Agnodice famously cut off her hair and dressed in male clothing as a means of travelling to Alexandria and gaining access to male-only medical training centres.
Her disguise was so convincing that upon arriving at a woman’s house to assist her in giving birth, the other women present tried to refuse her entry. She pulled back her garments and revealed that she was a woman, and was thus permitted entry. She subsequently was able to ensure a safe delivery for both mother and child.
5. She was a student of the famous Alexandrian physician, Herophilus
Agnodice was taught by one of the most prominent physicians of the time, Herophilus. A follower of Hippocrates, he was co-founder of the famous medical school at Alexandria. He is known for a number of medical advancements in gynaecology, and is credited with discovering the ovaries.
Herophilus was the first scientist to systematically perform scientific dissections of human cadavers – often publicly – and recorded his findings in over 9 works.
His contributions to the study of dissection were so formative that only a few insights were added in the following centuries. Dissecting with the aim of understanding human anatomy only started again in modern times, more than 1600 years after Herophilus’ death.
6. Her exact role is debated
Though women had been midwives before, Agnodice’s exact role has never been fully defined: she is generally credited with being the ‘first female physician’ or ‘first female gynaecologist’. Hippocratic treatises do not mention midwives, but rather ‘female healers’ and ‘cord-cutters’, and it is possible that difficult births were assisted only by men. Agnodice would prove the exception to this.
Though it is clear that midwives existed in various forms before, Agnodice’s more formalised training under Herophilus – as well as various sources which appear to show that women were barred from the higher echelons of the gynaecological profession – have credited her with the titles.
7. Her trial changed the law against women practicing medicine
As word spread about Agnodice’s abilities, pregnant women increasingly asked her for medical assistance. Still under the guise of a man, Agnodice grew increasingly popular, which angered the male doctors of Athens who claimed that she must be seducing women to gain access to them. It was even claimed that women must be feigning illness in order to get visits from Agnodice.
She was brought to trial where she was accused of engaging in improper behaviour with her patients. In response, Agnodice undressed to show that she was a woman and was incapable of impregnating women with illegitimate children, which was a huge concern of the time. Despite having revealed herself, the story goes, the male doctors continued to be outraged and sentenced her to death.
In retaliation, a number of women, including the wives of many of the leading men of Athens, stormed the courtroom. They chanted, “you men are not spouses but enemies, since you’re condemning her who discovered health for us!” Agnodice’s sentence was overturned, and the law was apparently amended so that freeborn women could study medicine.
8. Agnodice is a figurehead for marginalised women in medicine
The story of Agnodice has been commonly quoted by women facing barriers in studying gynaecology, midwifery and other related professions. When arguing for their rights, they have invoked Agnodice, tracing the precedent of women practicing medicine back to antiquity.
Agnodice was notably quoted in the 18th century at the peak of women’s struggle to enter the medical profession. And in the 19th century, midwife practitioner Marie Boivin was presented in her own day as a more modern, archetypal embodiment of Agnodice due to her scientific merit.
9. But she probably didn’t exist
The main topic of debate surrounding Agnodice is whether she actually existed. She is commonly thought to be mythical for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, Athenian law didn’t explicitly ban women from practicing medicine. While it restricted women from extensive or formalised education, midwives were primarily women (often enslaved), since women in need of medical treatment were often reluctant to reveal themselves to male doctors. Moreover, information about pregnancy, menstrual cycles and birth were commonly shared between women.
Secondly, Hyginus’ Fabulae largely discusses mythical or partially historical figures. Agnodice being discussed alongside a range of mythical figures suggests that she is unlikely to be any more than a figment of the imagination.
Thirdly, her story has many parallels with ancient novels. For instance, her bold decision to remove her garments in order to display her true gender is a relatively frequent occurrence within ancient myths, to the extent that archaeologists have unearthed a number of terracotta figures which appear to be disrobing dramatically.
These figures have been identified as Baubo, a mythical figure who amused the goddess Demeter by pulling her dress over her head and exposing her genitals. It may be that the story of Agnodice is a convenient explanation for such a figure.
Finally, her name translates to ‘chaste before justice’, which is a reference to her being found innocent on the charge of seducing her patients. It was common for characters in Greek myths to be given names which directly related to their circumstances, and Agnodice is no exception.