From the dawn of humanity, women have been healers. It has only been in relatively recent times, however, that women have held official positions as physicians. In honor of Women’s History month, here is a brief look at how women have contributed to medicine over the years.
The earliest reference to a woman in medical science (and, in fact, science at all) is Merit Ptah. Mentioned in an Egyptian inscription from 2700 BC, her title was “chief physician.” The works of ancient Greek historian Homer also mentions a woman named Agamede, who he recorded as being a healer in the time leading up to the Trojan War.
Though medical schools run by male clerics were closed to women, convents served as centers of female education during the middle ages. History records that nuns such as Hildegard of Bingen studied healing and recorded treatments for various conditions, often as part of a greater course of study that included botany and other life sciences.
Middle Ages Islamic Empire
Elsewhere in the world, Islamic countries were embracing the study of medicine by women. Partly due to Islam’s emphasis on modesty, there was a demand for female physicians to treat female patients. In addition, Islam’s requirement for every Muslim to pursue knowledge helped encourage female education.
During the European Renaissance, Italy and the surrounding areas were more accepting of female healers than other areas. One notable healer from Italy was Dame Trota, who taught at one of the few women’s medical universities. She practiced at the University of Salerno, along with a number of other female medical scholars referred to as ‘the Salernitarian Women.’ Female healers tended to focus on obstetrics and gynecology. Women during this time learned through practical training rather than by “book learning,” as medical universities remained closed to them.
Early Modern Period
During the early modern period, western women were more likely to practice medicine as missionaries. Dr. Mary H. Fulton, a missionary from the Presbyterian Church, founded the first medical university in China. Her students were accepted and encouraged to practice due to Chinese traditions that frowned upon physical contact between men and women. Graduates from the university often worked to elevate the social status of women in China, as well as provide them with medical treatment.
Though gender disparity still exists in the medical field, female physicians are more accepted than ever before. Female doctors (as well as medical researchers and others employed in the medical sciences) are making significant breakthroughs in several fields of study, such as stem cell research, cancer treatment, obesity treatment, and the control of deadly diseases like bird flu and MSRA.
Once such modern pioneer is biological researcher Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase. This discovery has opened the door for potential breakthroughs in cancer treatment and geriatric medicine.
Given their long history as healing professionals, society will continue to benefit from the contributions of women in medicine. Contemporary Women’s Care is grateful that its staff members are able to contribute to this historic month.
For more information on Contemporary Women’s Care, contact our Orlando OBGYN office at 407-478-6249.