Many Hellenists and ancient Hellas enthusiasts are unfamiliar with the fact that in ancient Hellas, female physicians were quite commonplace (although their numbers were small), and that they were by and large accepted and honored as skilled workers. As the image of the role of women in ancient Hellas is--very much unnecessarily so--equated solely with submissiveness and housewifery, I would like to paint a portrait of women as physicians in ancient Hellas, and give you a few examples of them.

The practice of having women doctors dates back to roughly the fifth century B.C. Very little information remains about the female physicians of ancient Hellas, which--in and of itself--can be interpreted as a favorable sign of their accepted existence; apparently, their role was commonplace enough not to keep track of and refer to often. An exception is Plato, who mentions the female physicians in passing:

"And if, I said, the male and female sex appear to differ in their fitness for any art or pursuit, we should say that such pursuit or art ought to be assigned to one or the other of them; but if the difference consists only in women bearing and men begetting children, this does not amount to a proof that a woman differs from a man in respect of the sort of education she should receive; and we shall therefore continue to maintain that our guardians and their wives ought to have the same pursuits.
[...] One woman has a gift of healing, another not; one is a musician, and another has no music in her nature? [...] And one woman has a turn for gymnastic and military exercises, and another is unwarlike and hates gymnastics? [...] And one woman is a philosopher, and another is an enemy of philosophy; one has spirit, and another is without spirit? [...] Then one woman will have the temper of a guardian, and another not. Was not the selection of the male guardians determined by differences of this sort? [...] Men and women alike possess the qualities which make a guardian; they differ only in their comparative strength or weakness." [445]

Plato, here in his Republic, does not only include female physicians (and athletes, warriors and philosopher), but uses them to prove his point that men and women are both suited for al professions, but have natural dispositions to professions, which rely not on gender but skills and character traits.

Plato's view was a modern one, though, as ancient Hellenic female physicians had quite a rough ride at first. It seems that women were allowed to learn gynecology, obstetrics, healing, and midwifery in the time of Hippocrates, and could study these arts at Hippocrates' school in Asia Minor. After Hippocrates died, however, Athenian lawmakers found women doctors doing abortions; something tolerated in ancient times, but most certainly not encouraged. As a result, they either restricted or banned women from medicine. They imposed the death penalty for violators.

As female physicians left the medical field, the death toll amongst ancient Hellenic women began to rise; with social modesty rules keeping sick women from speaking to a male physician, it became impossible to seek help. Then, in the fourth century B.C., an Athenian woman named Agnodice (Ἀγνοδίκη) disguised herself as a man. She went to the great University at Alexandria, studied medicine, and entered the medical field. She kept her disguise, and set up a medical practice for women.

Needless to say, Agnodice became a popular physician amongst the ancient Athenian women, and her male colleagues became jealous of her success. They charged her with corrupting women patients, and Agnodice was forced to reveal herself as a woman. As practicing medicine (or certain types of medicine) were still punishable by death, Agnodice found herself in a world of trouble. Thankfully, she was acquitted when her many patients arrived at her trial to praise her successes as a physician and chastised their husbands for trying to execute Agnodice. After it concluded, Athenian law changed the law to allow women to be treated by female physicians in Athens.

There is very little evidence to support Agnodice's existence, although she could have most certainly existed. It is possible that Agnodice's story is a way to mythologize the new ruling for women to return to medicine.

Although female physicians were active in gynecology and obstetrics in ancient Hellas, it was rare that women physicians practiced in other areas of medicine. Childbirth and obstetrics in antiquity were viewed as acceptable areas of medical practice for women who were able to gain medical training as physicians, in large part because of the ancient tradition of midwifery and its association with women trained by other women.

There are many more examples of female doctors in ancient Hellas. The temples of Hygeia and Panacea had female healers, and their work was highly praised. Other famous examples include Metrodora, a Hellenic female physician and author of the oldest medical text known to have been written by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women, Antiochis of Tlos, who was rich and influential enough to have a statue made in her honor--alluding to the possibility that she treated men as well, and that her practice went beyond the typical 'female fields'--and a Hellenic medical lecturer called Philista who was said to be so brilliant and beautiful she had to teach from behind a curtain.

This list and exposition are not complete by far, but do give an impression of the existence, history, and status of female physicians in ancient Hellas. Perhaps it will clear up some of the misconceptions surrounding women in ancient Hellas.