University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Women in Medicine

Agnodice and Childbirth

Stone relief from Isola Dell Sacra

Stone relief from Isola Dell’ Sacra, Ostia, 1st century CE

This relief of a scene in childbirth portrays a midwife in the midst of a delivery aided by an assistant who stands behind the birthing chair. The assistant grips the mother around the chest to steady her.

Agnodice is a figure often mentioned in the histories of the medical profession, but her story is largely unfamiliar to Classicists. She is credited with achieving the role of physician, although it was forbidden to her by law. It is highly unlikely that she was an veritable historical figure in third century Athens; more likely, she belongs to the realm of myth and folk tale. Her story comes to us through Hyginus, a Latin author of the first century CE:

A certain maiden named Agnodice desired to learn medicine and since she desired to learn she cut her hair, donned the clothes of a man and became a student of Herophilos. After she learned medicine, she heard a woman crying out in the throes of labor so she went to her assistance. The woman, thinking she was a man, refused her help; but Agnodice lifted up her clothes and revealed herself to be a woman and was thus able to treat her patient. When the male doctors found that their service were not wanted by the women, they began to accuse Agnodice, saying that she had seduced the women and they accused the women of feigning illness [to get visits from Agnodice]. When she was brought before the law court, the men began to condemn Agnodice. Agnodice once again lifted her tunic to show that she was indeed a woman. The male doctors began to accuse her all the more vehemently [for breaking the law forbidding women to study medicine]. At this point the wives of the leading men arrived saying “you men are not spouses but enemies since you are condemning her who discovered health for us.” Then the Athenians emended the law so that freeborn women could study medicine.

Midwives from the seventeenth century to the present day have used this tale to defend themselves against a male-dominated profession seeking to medicalize childbirth. Agnodice has been invoked as fact, and cited as a pioneering midwife, a precedent for women in medicine in general.

However, as much as traditional medical history focuses on pioneering individuals who struggle against the odds and win—and indeed Agnodice fits well into such a tradition—it is highly unlikely that Hyginus’s account is based upon fact. The act of lifting the skirts to reveal one’s sex is a common folk-tale motif found in other stories. Terra cotta figurines of women lifting their garments, which date to the fifth to third centuries BCE, are generally interpreted as apotropaic, driving evil forces away. The story of Agnodice may simply be an explanation for such a figure. Furthermore, the name Agnodice literally means “chaste before justice,” a coincidence which suggests her name stems from this tale—a not uncommon device in Greek literature.

Terra cotta statuette from Priene

Terra cotta statuette from Priene, c. 5th-3rd century BCE Baubo

During the 1898 excavations at Priene, German archaeologists unearthed a number of figurines such as the one pictured above. They have subsequently been identified as statuettes of the mythical woman Baubo. According to Greek myth, Baubo amused the goddess Demeter by painting a face on her belly, pulling up her dress over her head and dancing. Figurines of women pulling apart their skirts to expose their genitals have been found elsewhere in the Mediterranean and their existence may be connected in some way to the tale of the Greek physician Agnodice.

The story of Agnodice underlines one of the major problems in treating female patients. As the author of the Hippocratic treatise De morbis mulierum (1.62) explains, women were loathe to confide in doctors, and this often interfered with successful treatment. However, it is not surprising that women were less than cooperative when one considers they were brought up in seclusion and taught to be ashamed of their bodies.

Gynecology was not always the province of male physicians. Before the fifth century BCE and the advent of Hippocratic medicine, childbirth had been entrusted to the informal care of female kin and neighbors who had themselves given birth. Some of these women became known for their skills and were accorded the informal title of maia or “midwife.” As they worked, they accumulated lore about other aspects of women’s reproductive lives, such as fertility, abortion, contraception, and even (in imagination, if not in reality) sex determination.

But, by the time the Hippocratic treatises were composed in the late fifth century BCE, this traditional female monopoly in childbirth was breaking down; male doctors were increasingly involved in gynecological cases, as evidenced by the creation of treatises dealing with such problems.

The shift from female control to male involvement came about largely because men were suspicious of women’s reproductive autonomy. Female patients described in the Hippocratic treatises, and for that matter, in Greek literature in general, were often suspect by men. A wife’s potential to sabotage her husband’s lineage was a great source of anxiety for men. Thus, women’s struggle to control their own bodies was a volatile issue in antiquity, even as it is today.