Pioneering Women Women of Science

Agnodice | The Heroic Physician From Athens

Agnodice is one of the first female doctors known to history, though, it’s unclear if she was a real Greek woman or more likely, a mythical one. Either way, we love the story of Agnodice and cheer on the sisterhood as they subvert inequality, help each other and generally get things done. Agnodice is an awesome heroine, who has been inspiring women in medicine for millennia.

The Story of Agnodice

Agnodice was an Athenian women from Ancient Greece, who wanted to help women during childbirth, at a time when women were not allowed to study medicine. Agnodice rather ingeniously, disguised herself as a man and went to study medicine as a student of the ancient Greek anatomist Herophilos.

Agnodice Revealed Her Secret

After her training, Agnodice heard a woman in the throes of labour and went to help. At the time, Athenian women did not want the help of male physicians and so the woman refused Agnodice’s help. But Agnodice lifted up her clothes and revealed that she was, in fact a woman. And so the labouring woman asked Agnodice to treat her.

Male Physicians Became Suspicious

News of Agnodice travelled fast and soon she began treating many women throughout Athens. Because the women refused treatment from the other physicians, the male physicians became suspicious of Agnodice and brought her to court. Believing her to be a man, they thought she had been seducing all the Athenian women. Again, Agnodice lifted up her clothes to reveal that she was in fact a woman. The male physicians were even more outraged and accused her of breaking the law that prevented women from studying medicine.

The Sisterhood – Athenian Women Come to Agnodice’s Rescue

The Athenian women then came to Agnodice’s defence saying:

You men are not spouses but enemies since you are condemning her who discovered health for us.

Persuaded by the Athenian women, the law was changed to allow women to study and practice medicine.

Agnodice – The Medical Pioneer of Ancient Greece

Agnodice, From the Wellcome Library London, (CC BY 2.0)

Sources for the Story of Agnodice

The sources for the story of Agnodice are complicated. We only have one ancient source for this classic tale, which is in Latin and recorded in Hyginus’ Fabulae or ‘Stories’. The story comes from Greek but no Greek version has survived. Hyginus was a Roman author, but it is unclear who he was, when he was writing, or where he got the story.

The story of Agnodice has been retold many times and remains popular throughout the medical community in particular. It was translated into English in 1535 and has been added to and embellished ever since.

Dating the Story

Herophilos is named in the story as the person Agnodice learns medicine from. Herophilos was a real person, a notorious Greek physician from 3rd century Alexandria, Egypt. If Agnodice trained with this Herophilos, then she would have lived in the 3rd century BC.

But it could be a different Herophilos or the part about Herophilos could have been added to the story later, either to embellish the story or to place it into history.

Hyginus – we don’t have a date for his life or works. We don’t know when he was writing – so he is no help in dating the story. He could have been 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th century AD. We also don’t know how old the story was before he wrote it down. Nonetheless, we are still enjoying it today a couple of thousand years later!