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Agnodice engraving.jpg
Agnodice in her disguise as a male physician, imagined here not as lifting her tunic to reveal her true sex, but as opening her outer garment to show that she has breasts.
EraClassical Greece

Agnodice or Agnodike (Ancient Greek: Ἀγνοδίκη Agnodikē, Greek pronunciation: [aŋnodíkɛː] c. 4th century BCE) is a legendary figure credited as the first female midwife or physician in ancient Athens. Her story is told by the Roman author Gaius Julius Hyginus in his Fabulae. Agnodice is not generally believed to be a historical figure, but her story has been frequently deployed as a precedent for women practising midwifery or medicine, or as an argument against either of these.

According to Hyginus, Agnodice studied medicine under Herophilus, and worked as a physician in her home city of Athens disguised as a man, because women at the time were forbidden from practising medicine. As her popularity with female patients grew, rival physicians accused her of seducing the women of Athens. She was tried, and revealed her sex to the jury by lifting her tunic (a gesture known in ancient Greek as anasyrma). Accused of illegally practising medicine as a woman, she was defended by the women of Athens who praised her for her effective treatments. She was acquitted, and the law against female physicians in Athens was revoked.

Life story[edit]

Hyginus wrote that Agnodice lived in ancient Athens, where at the time women were forbidden from studying medicine. In order to learn medicine, she disguised herself as a man, cutting her hair short, and studied under Herophilus in Alexandria. Having trained as a physician, Agnodice tried to assist women in labour, who were ashamed of, or blatantly refused to consult male practitioners.[1] In one case, Agnodice therefore revealed her sex and was permitted to treat the woman. Other doctors, growing jealous of Agnodice's success, accused her of seducing her patients. On trial before the Areopagus, Agnodice once again lifted her clothes, revealing that she was a woman. She was then charged with breaking the law which forbade women from practising medicine, but was defended by the wives of important Athenians whom she had treated. In response to this, the law was changed to allow women to practise medicine.[2]

Hyginus describes Agnodice as an obstetrix. It is difficult to know how to translate this into English. Sarah Pomeroy has rendered it as "obstetrician", arguing that midwives existed in Athens in Agnodice's day but that Agnodice was distinguished by her formal education in medicine.[3] However, Helen King notes that there was no "formal licensing system" for medics in the ancient world, and that it is anachronistic to divide ancient healers into the distinct categories of "midwife" and "obstetrician".[4]


Modern scholars generally doubt that Agnodice was a real historical figure.[5] Problems with accepting Agnodice as historical include questions over her date, and the implausibility of Hyginus' claim that there were no "obstetrices" in Athens before Agnodice, when literary and epigraphic evidence shows that midwives were known.[6][1][7] Hyginus claims that Agnodice was taught medicine by "a certain Herophilus" – generally identified with Herophilus of Chalcedon, an ancient physician known for his work on gynaecology who was credited with the discovery of the ovaries.[8] If this is the case, Agnodice would have lived in the late fourth or early third century BC.[9]

Stories similar to that of Agnodice can be found in various different contexts, including other stories of the display of the female body in Greco-Roman culture as well as ancient Mediterranean, Western folk, or world ethnography. Interpretation of the story varies according to whether we foreground links to ancient medical practice, or to visual artistic artefacts outside the literary canon.

Those who believe in the historicity of Agnodice have come to two separate conclusions explaining the lack of midwives in Athens before her. The first theory is that there were no midwives prior to Agnodice; alternatively, it has been proposed that there were earlier midwives but they had been forbidden by law from practising.[10] This second theory has been elaborated over time, with Kate Hurd-Mead, in 1938, being the first to propose that women had been forbidden from practising medicine because they had been accused of performing abortions,[11] an interpretation of the story with no foundation which has been repeated by some modern feminist historians of women in medicine such as Margaret Alic.[12]

Though frequently examined in past societies as a real story, the tale of Agnodice is often read as fictional. First, the story is often studied as an important addition to a particularly large existing mass of similar stories in medical history examining people who struggle and suffer through social nonconformity to help others, especially in the context of medical rights. Also, at least in the Mediterranean, disrobing as the means of revealing gender seems to be a common theme in such non-conformist stories. Small delicate statues of disrobing women have been found and excavated, adding to the lack of historicity and likelihood of Agnodice's reality; her name, literally 'chaste before justice', also seems a little too convenient. The best-known of these figurines come from Priene, and they may represent Baubo, a mythical Greek woman who painted a face on her belly and then danced as a form of entertainment for the mourning goddess Demeter. Many figurines similar to those found in Priene have been discovered elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Controversy as to whether these are connected to Agnodice continues among scholars and those interested in ancient midwifery.

Female doctors in Ancient Greece[edit]

In the opening words of the story told by Hyginus, 'the ancients had no midwives'; however, at the end of the story, freeborn women are permitted to learn 'medicine'. This leaves open the question of whether Agnodice is supposed to be the first midwife or the first female physician. Nancy Demand argued that, in the Hippocratic period, some midwives increased their status by working alongside male physicians.[13] However, the difficulty of putting a date on the period when the Agnodice story is set means that we cannot tie it to this argument. Outside the story, we have evidence not only of midwives in ancient Greece but also of female physicians, who may have treated all patients rather than only women and children.[14] This evidence comes from inscriptions; the Hippocratic treatises do not mention midwives, but do refer to 'female healers' (iatrinai) and 'cord-cutters'. The Hippocratic treatises include The Excision of the Fetus, which describes in detail how to remove a child if labour does not proceed normally.[15] It is not clear whether the existence of this treatise means that women were only involved in normal childbirth, with difficult births being dealt with by men.

Influence on women in medicine[edit]

The story of Agnodice has been invoked since the sixteenth century to provide precedents for a range of gender options within the medical profession.[16] While some later users of the story focused on the midwifery claims in the opening line, for example arguing that men were midwives before women were, or that women were midwives first, others have concentrated on what Agnodice is supposed to have learned from Herophilus, which was medicine rather than midwifery.[4] Thus she was used both in the peak of men-midwifery in the eighteenth century and in women's struggle to enter the medical profession in the nineteenth century. Elizabeth Cellier, the seventeenth century "Popish midwife", positioned herself as a modern Agnodice.[17] Although she appears in a list of 'Who discovered/invented what', she is represented more as someone who bridges the gap between the knowledge of male doctors ("a certain Herophilus") and the delivery of this knowledge to women who are embarrassed to show their bodies to a male doctor.[18]

Agnodice has been summoned in the context of situations for and against Caesarian sections performed by men or women. She has been invoked as a female scientist or unreliable empiricist, and a believer in social change or proponent of conservatism. Overall, the story of Agnodice has been useful for progressive women's health movements and for those trying to navigate spaces of male dominance, especially in medical care and even childbirth. The 19th century midwife practitioner Marie Boivin, for example, was presented in her own day as a more modern, archetypal embodiment of Agnodice due to her scientific merit.[17]

However, others have taken the story of Agnodice as a negative example: Augustus Kinsley Gardner, for instance, in 1851 delivered a lecture arguing that "literally, no improvement was made" in the "many centuries" where midwifery was a women's profession, comparing Agnodice to the 19th century abortionist Madame Restell.[4][19]


  1. ^ a b King 2013, p. 252.
  2. ^ King 1986, pp. 53–4.
  3. ^ Pomeroy, Sarah (1977). "Technikai kai mousikai: The education of women in the fourth century and in the Hellenistic period". American Journal of Ancient History. 2: 51–68.
  4. ^ a b c 1957-, King, Helen. The one-sex body on trial: the classical and early modern evidence. Farnham. ISBN 9781409463368. OCLC 856870739.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Retief & Cilliers 2006, p. 178.
  6. ^ King 1986, p. 60.
  7. ^ King 2017.
  8. ^ King 1986, p. 54.
  9. ^ Greenhill 1870.
  10. ^ King 1986, p. 55.
  11. ^ King 1986, p. 56.
  12. ^ Alic, Margaret (1986). Hypatia's heritage: a history of women in science from antiquity to the late nineteenth century. London: Women's Press. p. 28. ISBN 0704339544. OCLC 14067772.
  13. ^ Demand, Nancy H. (1994). Birth, death, and motherhood in Classical Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801847621. OCLC 29255114.
  14. ^ Flemming, Rebecca (2007). "Women, writing, and medicine in the classical world". Classical Quarterly. 57: 257–279. doi:10.1017/s0009838807000225. S2CID 171045159.
  15. ^ King, Helen (10 June 2017). "Birth and risk: perceiving risk in historical societies". Retrieved 11 December 2018.
  16. ^ King, Helen (18 October 2017). "Agnodice: reading the story". Retrieved 11 December 2018.
  17. ^ a b The Art of Midwifery: early modern midwives in Europe. Marland, Hilary. London: Routledge. 1993. ISBN 0415064252. OCLC 26933109.CS1 maint: others (link)
  18. ^ Green, Monica H. (2008). Making Women's Medicine Masculine: the rise of male authority in pre-modern gynaecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 31–33. ISBN 9780191549526. OCLC 236419788.
  19. ^ Gardner, Augustus (1852). A History of the Art of Midwifery: a lecture delivered at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, November 11th, 1851. New York: Stringer and Townsend.