Medicine Woman Throughout The Ages

Female practitioners of the medical arts were active in the ancient world. Worship of Isis, the great goddess of medicine, was universal among ancient Egyptians; magnificent temples were built in her honor and priestesses of Isis were regarded as physician-healers who obtained their healing powers from the goddess. At Sais, a city at the mouth of the Nile, women were both students and teachers at a women’s school specialising in child-bearing issues.

Egyptian records also show that women studied at the royal medical school at Heliopolis as early as 1500 BC. Illustrations of women performing surgery were common on tombs and temples throughout Egypt, suggesting that female physicians were widely accepted by the general population.

In ancient Greece, the goddesses Athena, who cured blindness; Hera, the chief healing deity; and Leto, the surgeon, were worshiped for their healing skills. Hygeia and Panacea, like their father Aesculapius, were “sainted mortals” who more than likely had been independently practicing physicians. Statues of Hygeia and Panacea were located in over 300 healing temples throughout Greece, where oracles were interpreted by male and female priests who prescribed treatments to their patients.

Subsequent Greek women doctors taught medicine, took care of patients, performed operations, and provided obstetrical care. Galen, the renowned physician, recorded the activities of several women physicians, including Margereta, who held a prestigious position as an army surgeon, and Origenia, whose remedies for hemoptysis and diarrhea were praised. The skills of Greek medical women were highly sought after, and they commanded high prices in the Roman slave markets as captives after the fall of Corinth. Female physicians in ancient Rome, called medicae, managed busy practices and were on equal footing with male physicians.

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