A Woman to Know: Agnodice

A certain maiden named Agnodice desired to learn medicine. — Hyginus

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Agnodice is the first known woman to practice gynecology. But of course, because Ancient Greece was Ancient Greece, she had to cut her hair and dress in male drag in order to visit female patients and cure their ailments. Soon enough, women throughout Athens — both the rich and the poor were so relieved to see a doctor specializing in female medicine that they began asking only to see Agnodice. The male doctors were irate and, of course, charged Agnodice with a host of crimes: lesbian seduction, witchcraft and more.

As the Latin author Hyginus tells it, Agnodice's trial was an ancient media circus. The Athenian elders forced her to disrobe publicly, practice medicine in court and prove her knowledge (naked). The young woman was sentenced to imprisonment until the women of Athens intervened. Hyginus writes:

At this point the wives of the leading men arrived saying, 'You men are not spouses since you are condemning her who discovered health for us.' Then the Athenians amended the law so that freeborn women could study medicine.

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