The surprising history of women in surgery

Jennifer Green


Part 1: Antiquity

The history of women in surgery reaches far into the ancient world and provides fascinating insights into the many ways women in medicine and surgery have weathered the storms of fluctuations in status influenced by their respective religious, social, and scientific climates.

Jennifer Green_Resize

Jennifer Green

 OWL Committee Chair

Ancient Egypt

The history of women as surgeons probably begins as early as 3500 BCE, with wall paintings adorning the tombs and temples of ancient Egypt depicting female surgeons performing procedures. The frequency of such images suggests that female surgeons were widely accepted in this era.

There is also evidence that female surgeons practised in Egypt in the Early Dynastic Period (c.3150–c.2613 BCE) when Merit-Ptah (c.2700 BCE) was recorded as being the Royal Court’s “chief physician”. This title would have made her not only a teacher and supervisor of her male colleagues, but also the king’s personal physician/surgeon. Although Merit-Ptah is the first female physician that we know by name, there is evidence of a medical school at the Temple of Neith in Sais, Lower Egypt, that was run by women c.3000 BCE. Egyptian history also records that women studied at the Royal Medical School at Heliopolis as early as 1500 BCE.

Women were highly respected and afforded rights and social stature almost equal to men in ancient Egypt. They could own property, initiate divorce, run businesses and become priestesses or scribes (one of the most affluent social classes).

Doctors were all scribes and Egyptian doctors were widely famed healers as early as 800 BCE, when their skills were celebrated in Homer’s Odyssey.

Ancient Greece

Surprisingly, the democracy of Ancient Greece was not as egalitarian as contemporaneous ancient Egypt. A famous story described by several ancient writers dating from c.400 BCE Greece tells of a young woman named Agnodice who wished to study medicine in Athens but was forbidden. A woman faced the death penalty for practising as a physician in Athens at this time. However, being a rather determined young woman, she travelled to Alexandria, where women were routinely allowed to study medicine.

Once qualified, Agnodice returned to practice in Athens as a physician, midwife and gynaecologist, disguised as a man. She was eventually discovered and taken to trial for “pretending” to be a doctor. Her female patients were so incensed that they broke into the courtroom and shamed the prosecuting males into freeing Agnodice. Consequently, the laws were changed, and Ancient Greek women were afforded the freedom to study medicine that their Egyptian counterparts had possessed for centuries. Agnodice was not the last woman to cross-dress in order to practice surgery (see the next history instalment).

Many ancient Greek female doctors later became medical educators, physicians, surgeons and obstetricians. Galen, the widely-known physician, recorded the activities of several female physicians. One such woman was an army surgeon, Origenia, whose remedies for haemoptysis and diarrhoea were praised by Galen.

The abilities of Greek medical women became so sought after that they commanded exceptionally high prices as captives in the Roman slave market after the fall of Corinth.

Ancient China

Medical training in ancient China was very much a family affair. Families closely guarded their medical knowledge and remedies, passing them down through dynasties. Stories exist of certain female surgeons and physicians being conferred titles for curing empresses and empress dowagers. Such honour and skill were then strongly associated with their descendants.

Families protected their medical knowledge base by passing it to their sons and daughters-in-law, but not to the daughters who would marry into other families.

This practice led to many cases of both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law being doctors. One example was the medical family of the Guos, who had an excellent reputation as gynaecologists dating back to the Song dynasty, with female doctors of several generations enjoying successful, high-profile careers.

Female doctors have been widely documented in Ancient Chinese records as running their own “pharmacies” and clinics.

Astoundingly, the biographies and recorded works of approximately 80 female doctors from ancient China have been able to be analysed by Chinese historians, who concluded that female doctors were equal to their male counterparts in providing care to their communities in ancient China.

Finally, a quote from a Chinese historian that suggests that, although being a female doctor was possible, it was definitely not the norm in ancient Eastern civilisation:

“One of the reasons that competent female doctors earned respect was simply because they were female. “How could a female be working as a doctor unless she had some unique life-saving skill?"” – Female Medical Workers in Ancient China, Jinsheng Zheng.

To be continued.