Portrait of Agnodice; illustration from Delacoux's "Biographie des sages-femmes célèbres, anciennes, modernes et contemporaines" (Paris: Trinquart, 1833-34). © The Trustees of the British Museum. Photo credit - Wikipedia
According to the Roman author Gaius Julius Hyginus in his mythology story collection, Fabulae, Agnodice (or Agnodike) was born into a wealthy Athenian family during the 4th Century BCE. Growing up, she was aware of the high mortality rate of infants and mothers during childbirth and decided to become a physician.
During that time, women were not allowed to practice medicine, so Agnodice disguised herself as a man, cut off her hair, wore men’s clothes, and traveled to Alexandria to study medicine under Herophilus.
On her return to Athens, Agnodice began to practice medicine, focusing on women in labor, especially those who were embarrassed or refused to be treated by a man. In one case, in which a patient did not trust Agnodice as a male physician, Agnodice revealed her true gender. Afterward, the word spread amongst the women of Athens, and her reputation and popularity grew.
Envying her success, the (male) doctors accused Agnodice of seducing her patients. She was sent to trial by Areopagus, the Athenian governing council, and had to expose herself as a woman to prove her innocence. She was accused of violating the law prohibiting women from practicing medicine.
As a result of her patients’ campaign for her defense, a new law allowed freeborn women in Athens to study and practice medicine, making Agnodice officially the first female physician.
For over 2000 years, Agnodice has symbolized determination and female equality. Her story has been often cited, in particular, in the context of the role of women in the medical profession.
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