Who was Agnodice? This is a question not commonly asked outside of a physician’s world, and according to the scholarship, is not frequently addressed within the field of Classics in general. While Agnodice may not be well known and her existence is most likely fictitious, her story nonetheless changed the way in which women practicing medicine was viewed and how women in the medical field viewed their own positions. Her story allows us to discuss many historical issues such as: whether midwives existed before Agnodice, the real nature of female medicine in the ancient world, how medical knowledge was transferred between the sexes, and how her story inspired women to pursue medicine throughout history. Through answering these questions, this brief history seeks to offer an analysis of her story that can help us understand women practicing medicine in the ancient world and beyond.
2. Agnodice’s Story
The original story of Agnodice is primarily taken from Gaius Julius Hyginus’ Fabulae, the only known primary source to discuss Agnodice. Her story is as follows:
In the time preceding Agnodice’s potentially legendary life, Athenian law did not allow slaves or women to practice medicine. Only citizen men could take up such a profession. The consequences that this law had for women at the time were often fatal as their modesty prevented them from seeing a male physician (Hyginus 2019). Whether it was for this exact reason that Agnodice began to learn the art of medicine is not well defined in the source material but nonetheless, Agnodice obviously had the desire and aptitude to pursue a career in obstetrics. However, there was an obstacle that kept Agnodice from formally pursuing medicine: the fact that she was a woman. To circumvent this, Agnodice proceeded to cut her hair and dressed herself in male clothing to approach a physician by the name of Herophilus to ask him if he would take her on as a trainee. Herophilus accepted Agnodice and she trained with him under the guise of a man.
Once she completed her training, she met her first patient, a woman in labour. When Agnodice offered to assist with the delivery, the woman declined because Agnodice appeared to her as a man. Agnodice then removed her clothes, revealing that she was woman, and then was permitted to treat her. Agnodice began attending to women this way, which caused more women to deny treatment from male physicians. Upon realizing that more and more female patients were choosing to be treated by Agnodice instead of them, these male physicians said “that he [Agnodice] was a seducer and corruptor of women, and that the women were pretending to be ill (Hyginus 2019).”
Agnodice’s accusers took her to the Areopagus in Athens to stand trial for her supposed actions. As a defense Agnodice removed her clothes in the same way she had done for the woman in labour to show the court that she was a woman and thus was not seducing the women that she treated. Her attempt to prove her innocence, however, was overshadowed by the fact that she had broken Athenian law by practicing medicine as a woman which led to further condemnation from the court. In response to this, the wives of the Areopagites protested saying that “You are not husbands, but enemies, because you condemn her who discovered safety for us;” their defense of Agnodice would prove to be a pivotal point in the laws governing Athenian society as they passed a law allowing free-born Athenian women to study and practice medicine (Hyginus 2019). Athens would become the first Greek city to allow this under law (Ramet 1996, 93).
Unfortunately, this is where Hyginus’ story of Agnodice ends, leaving us only with secondary source analysis to make sense of it. The questions that we are left with now is how we should read Agnodice’s story and how we should consider it within the context of medicine in the ancient world and modern day. As mentioned above, the primary source material available for Agnodice is very limited. Much like many of the – primary – source materials that are employed for scholarly research on the ancient world, Hyginus was probably writing a significant amount of time after the events took place, in this case around three-hundred years after Agnodice’s supposed existence.
The secondary scholarship on Agnodice is not overly diverse but there is one dominant authority on Agnodice who explores her story and what it can tell us about women in Antiquity and the relationship between gender and medical practice: Helen King. Helen King’s analysis of Agnodice is invaluable for a couple of reasons. The first reason being, as I have already mentioned, is that King appears to be the utmost authority on Agnodice and has written extensively on Agnodice and what her story can tell us about the relationship between gender and the practice of medicine. The second reason being, Helen King is a woman. The field of Classics, for a long time, has largely been dominated by men. While scholarship by men should not be omitted or discounted for this reason, King provides a valuable analysis because perspectives like hers have not been explored as thoroughly within this area of study. Alongside King, selected works from Rebecca Flemming and Monica H. Green have also been employed throughout this article.
King recounts Agnodice much like I have done through Hyginus’ Fabulae. She points out that the original text would have been written in Greek, where the name Agnodice before translation would have been Hagnodice, meaning “chaste before justice (King 1986, 54).” King suggests that this name would be a reference to Agnodice’s innocence in the face of her trial. But what else can we discover about Agnodice from Hyginus’ discussion of her in his Fabulae? Herophilus of Chalcedon, the physician who supposedly taught Agnodice according to Hyginus, was in fact a real physician, one that specialized in gynecology and is thought to have been the one to first identify ovaries (King 1986, 55). Herophilus practiced medicine either in the late fourth century BCE or the early third century BCE, so this chronologically situates Agnodice in Athens in the late fourth or early third century BCE (King 1986, 55). However, the existence of Agnodice is debated, and scholars tend to ascribe to her a more legendary existence than an actual one (King 2017). While Hyginus’ story of Agnodice is commonly understood as a fabrication, it has been argued that the contents of the narrative represent a shift in the gendering of medicine from a predominately male practice to one where women are able to practice on a level comparable to men (Green 2008, 33).
According to King, the use of Herophilus in Agnodice’s story represented a believable choice on the part of Hyginus because of Herophilus’ extensive writings on gynecology. For King, Herophilus was the ideal candidate for Agnodice to choose as a teacher. However, she also states that Herophilus’ “reality does not prove hers (King 1986, 54).” Already, from what know from King and Green, the validity of Agnodice’s story and Hyginus’ interpretation of history is contested. But this does not mean that Agnodice’s story is not worth further analysis; quite the contrary, in fact. We now must ask the question of what Agnodice’s story can tell us about women practicing medicine in the ancient world.
4. Agnodice in the Context of Ancient Medicine
One of the most interesting debates surrounding Agnodice’s story and its interpretations surrounds midwifery in the ancient world and what midwifery constituted. In the opening line of Agnodice’s story Hyginus claims that there were no midwives in the ancient world (Hyginus 1993). This claim is simply untrue, as it is well documented that women in the ancient world did practice medicine in various capacities and fourth century Athens was no exception. Rebecca Flemming points out that in a wide variety of source material, whether it be literary or epigraphical, women in the ancient world have been observed as “the medica or iatrine–the specifically female version of the physician, the medicus or iatros-as well as the obstetrix [the Latin translation of the word used by Hyginus in the original printing of Fabulae] or maia – the midwife (Flemming 2007, 257).”
There are also examples of Ancient Greek funerary inscriptions describing women as midwives and physicians (Blackwell 2006, 9). These are all representative of the “unique” role that delivering children allowed Greek women to hold within society, despite not having access to formal medical training (Gazzaniga 2000, 39). The question that arises here, is how much knowledge of the female body was actually understood by women at the time of Agnodice’s supposed existence. King argues that within the many interpretations of Agnodice’s story that the naming of Herophilus specifically, suggests that the “knowledge of the female body was, at that time, in the hands of men (King 2013, 169).” This allows us to consider that Agnodice must have believed that men had knowledge of the female body that was unavailable to her and unavailable to all women at the time, thus she took it upon herself to try and gain access to this knowledge in order to properly treat women (Green 2008, 32). In Fabulae, Agnodice’s story is included in a list of “inventors and their inventions (Hyginus 2019).” Agnodice’s inclusion in this list suggests that Hyginus saw Agnodice as the person who invented, or as some scholars put it, discovered healthcare for women (Green 2008, 32). Since Agnodice wanted to bring this ‘unknown knowledge’ of the female body to women, she invented women’s healthcare by offering it in a way that women could accept, i.e., allowing a woman to treat a woman so this shame they felt in the presence of men was no longer a factor (Hyginus 2019).
Hyginus’ story is obviously confusing in relation to the historical context, but if we take a look at Hippocrates’ “Diseases of Women 1,” we are able to shed more light on the ambiguity of Hyginus’ account of Agnodice and the claims he makes about women’s healthcare in the ancient world. Hippocrates is commonly referred to as the “father of medicine” and actually lived around the same time as Agnodice was supposed to have. His “Diseases of Women 1” is the earliest known Ancient Greek medical text referring to gynecology. Within this work, Hippocrates refers to the same aspect of female shame in the presence of male physicians as Hyginus: “[f]or women are ashamed to tell even if they know, and they suppose that it is a disgrace, because of their inexperience and lack of knowledge (Green 2008, 32).” It should also be noted, however, that within other Hippocratic texts there is also refence to men being “extensively involved in women’s medicine,” making it harder to determine how many women actually did not seek out treatment from male physicians (Green 2008, 33).
For further reading on women in medicine in Antiquity, click here!
5. Agnodice in the Context of Early Modern Medicine
Despite the little that is known about female medical practice in antiquity, the story of Agnodice, along with the literacy and epigraphical sources, nonetheless confirms that there was medically adept women in ancient Greece (Gazzaniga 2000, 38). Much of the scholarship surrounding this topic then picks the story of women in medicine back up in the medieval and early modern periods in Europe. Many regions of medieval Europe viewed women in medicine much like the ancient Greeks did and banned them from learning medicine. One of the only examples where women could train formally comes from Salerno, Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Blackwell 2006, 9). Despite these limitations, many became excellent healers, like Greek women, from treating family members at home.
So, if women had been finding ways to practice medicine for centuries, where does Agnodice fit into this? She fits into this story in two ways: when women’s traditional medical roles were threatened by men and when women were fighting for the opportunity to learn formal medicine. King argues that from the sixteenth century onwards that Agnodice’s story has been used as an argument for allowing women to practice medicine and in this way, it has been used as either a ‘midwifery’ story or as ‘women physicians’ story (King 2013, 179). In the sixteenth century the story was understood as one of Agnodice being a physician and in the eighteenth century the story was understood as one where Agnodice was a midwife (King 2013, 225).
These two readings of Agnodice’s story have been used to fit different socio-medical climates when needed as the eighteenth century understanding came about when according to King, “only as the right of women to be midwives in normal births started to be challenged did the story of Agnodice become primarily a midwifery story (King 2013, 189).” It was in attempts to medicalize childbirth that Agnodice has been used as the one of the most prominent examples of why women hold the monopoly on midwifery (King 1986, 55). The use of Agnoidce’s story carried on into the modern period as well. Sophia Jex-Blake, a medical student at Edinburgh University, used the following passage to help support her argument for furthering women’s education in medicine: “history of Agnodice, the Athenian maiden whose skill and success in medicine was the cause of the legal opening of the medical profession to all the freeborn women of the State (King 2017).”
We now have to ask what significance Agnodice’s story has to historical study. According to some scholars the significance of Agnodice’s story is that it is representative of when medical knowledge passed from men to women (Green 2008, 32). This is important to the understanding Agnodice and her significance to women practicing medicine, especially because interpretations of Agnodice’s story were used to promote women in roles as physicians or as midwives. This is one of the major takeaways from the story, it represents agency, and, in a way, it is an origin story of women in medicine. As King describes, for many readers Agnodice “is not a midwife, but the pioneer who made it possible for women to study medicine as a whole (King 2013, 222).”
Any additional significance that Agnodice held as a figure is largely unknown. Not only was Hyginus’s Fabulae written a considerable amount of time after Herophilus, Hippocrates, and Agnodice (supposedly) lived, it is the only ancient source that mentions her. Therefore, we do not know what others, either contemporary to the figures or those living in the time of Hyginus, may have thought about Agnodice.
As we can see, however, the question of whether Agnodice actually existed matters not to her legacy in medical history nor to her legacy in the minds of female practitioners. Within the context discussed throughout this article, King says “as for Agnodice’s story, its value for readers could depend on whether it was presented as a story about midwifery – ‘The ancients had no midwives’ – or was seen as evidence that women could be physicians (King 2013, 225).” This is a good summary of the significance of Agnodice’s story. Agnodice’s story is open to interpretation but the interpretations offer a lot to think about in terms of the relationship between gender and medicine throughout history and its use by female physicians and midwives to defend their positions throughout time.
Blackwell, Elizabeth. “Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches by Elizabeth Blackwell.” History Books 8 (2006).
Flemming, Rebecca. “Women, Writing and Medicine in the Classical World.” The Classical Quarterly 57. 1 (2007): 257-279.
Gazzaniga, V. Serarcangeli C. “The ancient origins of obstetrics, a rôle for women.” Vesalius 6.1 (2000): 38-41.
Green, Monica H. Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Hyginus. Fabulae. ed. Peter K. Marshall (Stuttgart: Tuebner, 1993).
Hyginus, Gaius Julius. Fabulae. Translated by Mary Grant. 2019. https://topostext.org/work/206.
King, Helen. “Agnodike and the Profession of Medicine.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 32 (1986): 53-77.
King, Helen. “Agnodice: reading the story.” Mistaking histories. October 18, 2017. https://mistakinghistories.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/agnodice-reading-the-story/
King, Helen. The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Ramet, Sabrina Petra ed. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. London: Routledge, 1996.