Medical pioneers: women physicians in antiquity

Historical Figures Who Broke Barriers and Left a Lasting Mark in Medicine

Merit-Ptah: The First Female Physician

Merit-Ptah is often mentioned as the first female physician known by name in history. She lived around 2700 BC in ancient Egypt, and her name means “Beloved of Ptah,” the god of creation and craftsmen. Merit-Ptah was praised by her son, who engraved her title of “Chief Physician” on her tomb in Saqqara. By assigning her this role, it is suggested that she was not only a practitioner but also a teacher and supervisor of other physicians, many of whom were men. In this instance, Merit-Ptah appears as an early and essential example of female leadership in ancient medicine.

Peseshet: The Supervisor of Physicians

Similar to Merit-Ptah, little has been recorded about the life and work of Peseshet. She lived around 2500 BC and was identified as the “Lady Overseer of the Female Physicians.” Inscriptions about Peseshet indicate that she was associated with the school-temple of Sais and may have been the personal physician of the reigning king. Peseshet is known to have played a crucial role in the training of physician-obstetricians, an integral part of Egyptian medicine. Once again, this example demonstrates the relevance of female contribution to the field of education in ancient medicine.

Agnodice: The Athens Woman-Physician in Male Clothing

Agnodice is a legendary figure from ancient Greece, who lived in the 4th century BC. It is said that she disguised herself as a man to study medicine in Alexandria because women were forbidden to do so in Athens. She was eventually discovered, but her case was supported by her female patients who appeared in court dressed in white robes. Agnodice’s work helped change the laws in Athens to allow women to become physicians. This story vividly represents the struggles and social opposition that women attempting to enter the field of medicine had to face but also highlights their lasting impact on legislation and social perception.

Women Physicians in Ancient Egypt

Women were not only physicians but also held important roles as midwives and nurses. The medical schools founded by queens, like Hatshepsut, demonstrate their hands-on involvement in women’s participation in medicine. Royal midwives were of significant importance, often tasked with the care of members of the royal family. This evidence shows that the women who practiced and developed medicine were highly acclaimed and seen as powerful social structures of Egyptian society.


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