Marilyn Ogilvie. Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. Editor: Sue V Rosser, ABC-CLIO, 2008.
Since cultures are not homogeneous, it is impossible to generalize about the contributions of women in science, technology, and medicine in antiquity. However, some cultures and chronological periods were more friendly than others to the activities of women in the scientific enterprise. Although women are seldom mentioned as engaging in scientific work, it is possible to select representative protoscientific or scientific cultures and describe how the rare woman whose name is mentioned fits into the contemporary scientific enterprise. However, the apparent absence of women scientists in a specific culture does not necessarily mean that women did not engage in scientific activities. Because of the paucity of reliable sources, it is almost impossible to ensure that information about early science is trustworthy. The material that is available suggests that there are two ways by which we can learn about the contributions of women to the scientific endeavor in antiquity, neither of which is totally satisfactory. The first includes contextual extrapolation from what is known, or assumed, about the social and cultural milieu in which a person or event exists. The second involves fragmentary descriptions of events or people in classical sources of different genres. An additional caveat should be mentioned. Many accounts of women in antiquity can be traced to a single secondary source, and all subsequent secondary accounts are based on the earliest account.
The societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt illustrate the contextual approach. Both produced two tools of science: writing and mathematics, developed as responses to specific practical problems. Although direct evidence is lacking, the social structure of Mesopotamia was such that the participation of women in these activities was unlikely. The great legal code of Hammurabi (fl. 1792-1750 BC) pronounced a girl the legal property of her father until sold to her husband—hardly a hospitable situation for encouraging a woman to produce science. A different situation existed in Egypt where women traditionally owned property, and it was the mother’s name that was listed in genealogies. Even after the Semitic influence of the 19th Dynasty strengthened patriarchal societal elements, the woman’s right to property persisted until later. Among her other qualities, the goddess Isis was honored as the greatest of physicians whose medical disciples were often women. Isis’s qualities trickled down to other women, many of whom were literate. In this society, women were allowed to attend either medical school with men or their exclusively female school at Säis, which specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. Although there is no direct evidence that Egyptian women participated in other areas important to science, the high level of education that Egyptian women physicians received suggests that this society was one in which women might have been able to participate in the science of the time.
Equality with men is not necessarily a condition for the development of science among women. If this were the case, the city-state of Sparta, with its liberal attitude toward women’s rights, should have produced women scientists. The Spartan lawgiver, Lycurgus (ninth century BC) suggested that women should be encouraged to engage in all of the physical sports of men such as wrestling and throwing the javelin. However, the reason for the strenuous activity was to prepare women for the rigors of childbirth. Spartan culture was lacking in scientific thinkers of either sex. In contrast to Sparta, the city-state of Athens did not pretend to allow women the same rights as men for any reason. The great Athenian statesman, Pericles (ca. 495-429 BC), considered the ideal woman one who is never talked about for any reason by men (Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.45). However, Socrates (ca. 470-399 BC) disagreed with Pericles’ view of women, and it is through the work of his distinguished disciple Plato that we are able to glimpse his ideas on the role of women in society (Ogilvie 1986).
Plato (ca. 428-348/347 BC)
Although not a scientist himself, Plato had an extraordinary influence on science. Born at the end of the Periclean Age, Plato was in his late twenties when his friend and mentor, Socrates, was executed. According to legend, he prudently left town for 12 years of travel. In about 387 BC, he returned to Athens and began to teach. He established a school on a piece of ground that was associated with the hero Academus; thus the school was known as the Academy. At the Academy, Plato taught that a reality exists beyond the objects we observe. The objects of our senses are merely imperfect copies of an ideal reality that exists in a suprasensible world of forms or ideas. In Book VII of the Republic, he states that the true value of astronomy is found in its ability to direct the attention of the soul not to any visible objects but to invisible realities. The ideas are the reality. Even though Plato knew that the senses could not be trusted, he realized that he possessed an instrument by which he could examine the world in the most minute detail—his mind.
Plato not only used his mind to assess the nature of the universe but he also used it to visualize the ideal state. Always looking beyond the obvious, he reasoned that the guardians of the ideal state and their wives should have similar educations. In the Republic, Plato’s mouthpiece Socrates argues with those who think that men and women have radically different natures and consequently should receive different educations. He insisted that no difference in the intellectual natures of men and women had been demonstrated. If either male or female is superior in any “art or pursuit,” then the task should be assigned to the most fit. However, if both men and women are equally capable of pursuing a given task, they should both be educated to perform it. Using an analogy from the animal kingdom, Socrates points to animal societies to justify the equal education of boys and girls. He asks, Are dogs “divided into hes and shes” or do they share equally in “hunting and in keeping watch and in the other duties of dogs?” Do only the males care for the flocks while the females remain at home “under the idea that the bearing and suckling of their puppies is labor enough for them”? Extrapolating to humans, Socrates concludes that if women are to share the responsibilities of the state with men, they must have the same “nurture and education” (Plato Republic 5.3.45I). Given Plato’s ideas about the importance of educating women in the ideal state, it is reasonable to accept the statements by Diogenes Laertius that Plato had two female disciples who dressed as men in their role as his students. These two women were Axiothea of Phlius (fl. 350 BC) and Lasthenia of Mantinea (fifth century BC). Although we know nothing about their actual contributions, it was significant that women, whether actually or apocryphally, were considered a part of the entourage of Plato, one of the most significant contributors to the form of modern science. Societies and individuals who accepted Plato’s view of the importance of educating women were much more apt to produce women scientists than those who followed the views of Plato’s student Aristotle (Ogilvie 1986).
Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Like Plato, Aristotle was a philosopher but, unlike Plato, he was also a scientist and codifier of scientific knowledge. He left behind an enormous body of written material covering a wide range of knowledge, including scientific knowledge. From Plato, Aristotle absorbed the importance of discerning the nature of reality. Unlike Plato, he did not find reality in the concepts or the ideals but in the objects of the senses. This is not to say that concepts were unimportant to him, but he emphasized the reality of both phenomena and the objects of the world more than had Plato.
Aristotle had little patience with Plato’s ideas about women. He wrote in the Politics that the inequality between the sexes is permanent. By his very nature the man is more fit to command and the woman to obey. The source of female passivity was biological, for “the female, in fact, is female on account of inability of a sort, viz., it lacks the power to concoct semen.” According to Aristotle, femaleness should be considered “a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature.” From the very beginning, he explains, males and females develop differently. Although while in the womb the female takes longer to develop than the male, the process reverses after the child is born. Everything is speeded up in the female—she reaches puberty, maturity, and old age sooner because females are “weaker and colder in their nature” (Aristotle De generatione animalium 1.20.728a.18-29, 4.6.775a.13-15). Aristotle’s ideas dominated much of the thinking about women during subsequent periods. Clearly, it would be surprising to find women scientists among those who accepted Aristotle’s ideas (Pomeroy 1975 ; Horowitz 1976 ; Ogilvie 1986).
Early Women in Medicine
From the earliest times, women have been involved in the healing professions. Names of specific women have come down to us in references from classical authors. Little is known of them, and the information that we have may be apocryphal. However, in antiquity, it was important for women to be healers and have expertise in the medical arts.
Agamede (12th century BC)
One of the first reports appears in Homer’s Iliad, which describes an early Greek physician, Agamede, who lived before the Trojan War “when the Pylians and th’ Epeans met.” This epic identifies her as the “yellow-hair’d” eldest daughter of Augeas, king of the Epeans in Elis, the son of Helios whose husband was the “bold spearman, Mulius,” killed by Nestor in battle. Myth and reality merge in the Iliad; however, the statement that a woman was skilled in the use of plants for healing purposes and that she “all the virtues knew of each medicinal herb the wide world grows” indicates the existence of a specific woman with knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants (Homer Iliad II.740).
Agnodike (last third of fourth century BC)
Agnodike, according to the Fabulae of Hyginus, was an Athenian maiden who disguised herself as a man and studied under the physician Herophilus. In Athens during the fourth century BC, slaves and free-born Athenian women were forbidden to practice medicine. As their modesty kept them from consulting male physicians, many of them died in childbirth and from “private diseases” because of these restrictions. Agnodike, attempting to help a woman in labor, was thrust aside by the patient until Agnodike assured her that she too was a woman. For transgressing the law she was tried and convicted by the Aereopagus. Throngs of women protested her conviction, and the judge recanted his former position, replacing the old law with one that allowed women to practice medicine on their own sex; it even gave stipends to those who “did it well and carefully” (Hyginus Fabulae 274.25-35).
Elephantis (first century BC)
Pliny the Elder in his Natural History reported on the contributions of several women physicians. However, his accounts cannot be accepted unconditionally. For example, the woman Elephantis was mentioned by both Galen and Pliny as a physician. However, the name Elephantis was used commonly in classical times by the hetaerae who often adopted animal names. It is possible that the Elephantis mentioned by Galen and Pliny was a courtesan and also may be a blend of two or more people of the same name. Galen noted her ability to cure baldness and Pliny her skills as a midwife. Pliny also discussed a conflict that she had with another midwife, Laús.
Laús (first or second century BC)
Laús’s work was also described by Pliny the Elder, the only source for her practice of medicine. Laús developed treatments for rabies and “intermittent fevers” (malaria), which could be “cured by the flux on wool from a black ram enclosed in a silver bracelet” (Pliny 28.23.80-82). He notes that she and Elephantis disagreed about abortives. The two physicians also clashed about the effect of eating grains of barley contaminated with menstrual blood. One said that this process produced fertility whereas the other claimed it caused barrenness. Pliny concluded that it is best not to believe either of them.
Salpe (first century BC)
Pliny the Elder is the single source for our knowledge of the Greek midwife Salpe. Saliva and urine were Salpe’s favorite remedies for numerous disorders. Saliva could restore sensation to a numbed limb if one would spit “into the bosom or if the upper eyelids are touched by saliva.” Weak eyes could be strengthened by an application of urine. Urine was also helpful for sunburn, particularly if mixed with the white of an egg (preferably of an ostrich) and rubbed on the skin. As had Laús, Salpe suggested remedies for rabies and malaria. Since we are forced to rely on Pliny for knowledge of Salpe’s “scientific” accomplishments, it is difficult to ascertain whether she had other ideas more acceptable to modern readers. We do know that she was a midwife and must have had practical skills.
Metrodora (first or second century BC)
Even less is known about Metrodora than other early midwives, although the potential to learn more is present in an extant manuscript in Florence entitled Extracts from the Works of Metrodora Concerning the Diseases of Women. According to Pauly, it consists of 263 leaves of parchment.
Olympias (first century BC)
Olympias of Thebes was a practicing midwife who wrote of her experiences. There is evidence that the herbalist Dioscorides (b. ca. AD 20) knew of her work. Pliny the Elder reported that Olympias could cause abortions by mixing mallows with goose grease and cure barrenness by bull’s gall, serpents’ fat, copper, rust, and honey “rubbed on the parts before intercourse.”
Sotira (first century BC)
According to Pliny the Elder, Sotira was able to affect marvelous cures. She may be the author of a manuscript, Gynaecia, found in Florence.
Saint Nicerata (fourth century AD)
The Christian martyr, physician Saint Nicerata, reputedly cured Saint John Crysostom of a stomach ailment. Nothing else is known about her medical contributions, but she is representative of a class of Christian women who took care of the medical needs of the poor.
Saint Theodosius (fifth century AD)
Numerous female Christian saints and nuns are known for their medicinal skills. Saint Theodosius, a Christian martyr who practiced medicine in Rome and was killed during the persecutions of Diocletian, represents this group of female physicians.
Fabiola (d. 399 AD)
Fabiola was the daughter of a patrician Roman family. When she was 20 years old she converted to Christianity and became one of the 15 followers of Saint Jerome who practiced medicine and offered their services free to the indigent.
Aspasia (first century AD)
The confusion between two Aspasias indicates the difficulty in understanding the women of antiquity. Aspasia, the celebrated hetaera of Pericles, is often conflated with Aspasia, the physician who lived in the first centuries of the Common Era. The hetaera Aspasia often appears as the physician and the physician Aspasia as the hetaera.
Aspasia the Physician (first century AD)
Although nothing is recorded about Aspasia’s life, fragments cited by a physician to an emperor of Byzantium indicate that she was a physician whose major medical contributions were in the areas of obstetrics and gynecology. Her contributions were practical, not theoretical. She apparently developed an important technique for rotating the fetus in a breech presentation. Her discussion of preventive medicine during pregnancy was based on a commonsense approach, not on the consideration of an abstract principle.
Aspasia of Miletus (d. ca. 401 BC)
Athenian men who found their dutiful spouses insufficiently entertaining and inadequately informed frequently turned to foreign women called hetaerae (companions). These women, often Ionians, occupied a position between that of an Athenian lady and that of a prostitute. It was from these ranks that Pericles found the educated Milesian Aspasia. She reputedly influenced men such as Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, and Plutarch and apparently held a popular salon frequented by Anaxagoras and Euripides. Early sources often provide contradictory information about her. The most reliable seems to be Plutarch in his Life of Pericles. As a member of the hetaerae, Aspasia could participate in the intellectual and social life of Athens. Her union with Pericles presumably produced a son. She later supposedly married an Athenian politician, Lysicles, and produced a son by him.
Allegedly, Aspasia wrote some of Pericles’ best speeches, including his famous funeral oration for those who died in the battle of Potidaea. Plato’s dialogue, the Menexenus, includes a funeral oration said to be written by Aspasia. However, the account in the Menexenus is filled with historical misstatements. Aspasia was certainly not a scientist but apparently was an influential advocate for women’s rights. If she taught Socrates, as Plato claimed, she was a highly respected scholar and her views may have influenced those expressed by Plato in the Republic regarding women. Clearly, she was an important figure in fifth-century Athens. Although she left no books of her own she was satirized in Greek comedy and was considered an important personage in Greek philosophical dialogue (Lipinska 1900, 1930; Hurd-Mead 1938; Ogilvie 1986; Mozans 1991).
Women in Mathematics and Astronomy
Although medicine was the scientific endeavor most often pursued by women, they also reputedly participated in other areas of the scientific enterprise.
Aglaonike (fl. fifth century BC)
We know of the existence of the Greek astronomer Aglaonike from two classical sources: Plutarch and the scholiast of Apollonios of Rhodes. She was regarded by her contemporaries as a sorceress because she supposedly possessed the occult power traditionally attributed to certain Thessalian women to make the moon disappear at will. Plato, Horace, and Virgil all mention this. However, Aglaonike’s abilities may have gone beyond the purely magical realm into the area of eclipse prediction. Apparently she was familiar with the periodic recurrence of lunar eclipses. The prediction of the general time and the general area in which a lunar eclipse would occur was an ancient skill and not one that Aglaonike originated. However, it is likely that she had mastered the skill of predicting eclipses and was interested in celestial astronomy (Ogilvie 1986).
Hypatia of Alexandria (ca. AD 355-415)
Hypatia captured the imagination of 18th-century writers because of her brutal murder at the hands of an Alexandrian mob. These writers derived their information from a small number of sources from late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Most of the material comes from Socrates Scholasticus, a fifth-century historian of Constantinople, and two compilations—the 10th-or 11th-century Suidas, a lexicon-encyclopedia containing excerpts from early Greek writers; and the Bibliotheca of the ninth-century theologian Photius. Other sources for these 18th-century accounts were the Byzantine chronicler Malalas, whose material was notoriously inaccurate, and the Ecclesiasticae historiae by Niceporus Callistus. Later accounts were loosely based on the earlier culturally biased material. For example, John Toland, an ardent Protestant, published an essay (1720) on Hypatia blaming the Alexandrian clergy for her death. Voltaire asserted Enlightenment values by also blaming her death on religious fanaticism. Hypatia appears in E. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in Henry Fielding’s A Journey from This World to the Next (1743), two poems by Leconte de Lisle (1847, 1874), and a novel, Hypatia (1853), by Charles Kingsley. During the second half of the 19th century, positivists found that Hypatia satisfied their needs for elevating science over superstitious religion. The life, work, and death of Hypatia have continued to fascinate literary and religious writers, artists, and scientists in the 20th century. However, scholars may never be able to arrive at an entirely satisfactory evaluation of her life and works.
Hypatia’s father was Theon of Alexandria, a mathematician attached to the museum at Alexandria. Although Theon is described in some reports as the director of the museum, there is no consensus about this position. Most accounts assume that Hypatia’s early education was in mathematics and astronomy at the Museum. However, it is uncertain where she received her training as a Neoplatonist, although most sources assume that she was educated in the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria since she became a teacher in this school. The Suidas asserts that she assumed the directorship of the school in AD 400 when she was 31 years old.
Socrates Scholasticus proclaimed that Hypatia was not only well known in her native land but that her fame was widespread, attracting students from far away. Synesius, later bishop of Ptolemais, was one of her most famous students. She carried on an extensive correspondence with him, and he became an excellent public relations agent for her. The best evidence indicates that Hypatia never married, although there are reports to the contrary.
The report of Hypatia’s death recorded in the Suidas says that “she was torn apart by the Alexandrians and her body was outraged and scattered throughout the whole city.” The same source blames this atrocity on Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, envious over “her wisdom exceeding all bounds and especially in the things concerning astronomy” (Suidas 166:644). Most of the sources agree on the circumstances of her death but differ as to the reason for it, depending on their biases. Several, like the Suidas, blame her death on the jealousy of Bishop Cyril. Others cast Hypatia as a victim of political rivalry between the Roman prefect Orestes, who was a great admirer of Hypatia, and Cyril, who wanted to extend his authority over secular as well as religious areas. Additional accounts blame the murder on the unruly nature of the Alexandrians, which caused them to riot at the slightest provocation. Later writers continued to speculate on the part that Cyril and the Church played in her murder. Catholic partisans insisted that Cyril was completely innocent and unjustly maligned by biased reporters. Protestant writers were equally vehement in denouncing Cyril as the instigator of her death.
Tradition assumes that Hypatia wrote books on mathematics, lectured on a variety of subjects, and invented mechanical devices. It has generally been accepted that although she wrote commentaries on Apollonius of Perga, Diophantus, and Ptolemy, none of these works survived. However, scholar Alan Cameron postulates that editions of Ptolemy (Theon’s commentary on the third book of the Almagest and Handy Tables now available) were actually codified and arranged by Hypatia. He also presents the possibility that certain commentaries on Diophantus’s work were also made by Hypatia.
Synesius refers to two mechanical devices, a hydrometer and a silver astrolabe, that he and Hypatia invented.
Hypatia’s life will undoubtedly continue to be shrouded in uncertainty. The terse early accounts of her life and death are often ambiguous and lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Reputedly a brilliant, beautiful woman, her fame was assured by her martyrdom (Alic 1986; Ogilvie 1986; Dzielska 1995).
Lilovati (or Leelavati) (fl. 12th century AD)
The status or even the existence of Lilovati (or Leelavati) is more uncertain than that of Hypatia. According to one tradition, she was the daughter of the well-known Hindu mathematician Bhaskaracharya or Bhaskara II (born AD 1114), who taught her arithmetic. Bhaskaracharya is best known for his Siddhânta Siromani, a mathematical work, basically a textbook, divided into four parts: Lilavati (arithmetic), Bijaganita (algebra), Goladhyaya (celestial globe), and Grahaganita (mathematics of the planets). It is immediately evident that the first section of the Siddhânta Siromani, the Lilavati, shares its name with Bhaskaracharya’s daughter. According to C. N. Srinivasiengar in The History of Ancient Indian Mathematics, Lilavati or Leelavati was a popular girl’s name. Why did Bhaskaracharya choose this name for the first part of his mathematical work? According to one story, he named it after his daughter. As a good astrologer, Bhaskaracharya studied her horoscope and concluded that Lilavati would become a widow. However, this disaster could be avoided if the couple married on a specific date at a specific time. To ensure that they would be married at exactly the propitious time, he constructed a “sand glass,” a device that measured time in a fixed interval by controlling the flow of sand from one vessel to another beneath it through a small hole. However, Lilovati, overcome with curiosity, examined the instrument; as she leaned over it, a pearl fell in the sand from the ornament in her nose. The pearl slowed the motion of the sand; consequently, the marriage took place after the ideal time fixed by astrological calculations. Her husband died shortly after the marriage and to console her, the story goes, her father taught her arithmetic and named his work for her.
According to Srinivasiengar, this often-told story has no basis in fact. He writes that “the concluding stanza of the Leelavati is a pun on language, and would bear evidence to the statement that the name is one of fancy” (Srinivasiengar 1967 , 80-81). He continues with reasons for his skepticism, including the presence of other books pertaining to different subjects, also named Leelavati (Srinivasiengar n.d.).
Theano (latter part of sixth century BC)
The historical position of Theano, while better documented than that of Leelavati, is still elusive. Although some sources consider her the wife of Pythagoras, others consider her a Cretan woman, the daughter of Pythonax. Still others place her as a Crotonian, the daughter of Broninos or Brotinos, Pythagoras’s successor. Another tradition indicates that she is not the wife of Pythagoras but his student. Still another claims that she is Pythagoras’s daughter and Brontinos’s wife. If she was indeed the wife of Pythagoras, the number and names of the children attributed to Theano and Pythagoras vary with the sources.
No writings of Theano are extant, although an apocryphal literature under her name has emerged. The earliest of these writings probably appeared from the fourth to the third century BC and consist of a collection of apothegms. This first group and the second, consisting of seven letters and based on the apothegms, do not show characteristics of Pythagoreanism. The third group, however, contains a mathematical pseudo-Pythagorean literature in Theano’s name. According to tradition, medicine was another of her fields of expertise.
It is difficult to determine which works attributed to Pythagoras actually represented his ideas. Because of the cult of secrecy surrounding Pythagoreanism, the practice arose of assigning all important ideas to Pythagoras himself. This practice carried over to Theano. Since the Pythagorean-mathematical apocrypha appeared much later than the apothegms, it cannot be assumed that they expressed the words or even the ideas of Theano. It is often claimed but not confirmed that Theano continued the school of Pythagoras after his death. We can only conclude that, according to tradition, Theano was a mathematician, a physician, and an administrator—someone who kept alive an important training ground for future mathematicians (Alic 1986; Ogilvie 1986).
Women in Alchemy
Alchemy has always been surrounded by mystery; consequently, it is difficult to extricate the factual from the fanciful in the works of the ancient alchemists. To ensure their own exalted positions, they couched their works in symbolic and metaphorical terms. They also appropriated historical names such as Moses, Cleopatra, and Adam. According to one tradition, Cleopatra was a physician of the fifth century BC mentioned in the Hippocratic writings. Another suggested that she was an alchemist who was a follower of Mary the Jewess. During the Middle Ages the traditions became confused and a third complication was added: Queen Cleopatra of Egypt’s name was linked with the work of both Cleopatra the physician and Cleopatra the alchemist. However, both women’s and men’s names were associated with early alchemy.
Mary the Jewess (first or second century AD)
Mary the alchemist assumed the name of the sister of Moses and is known variously as Mary, Maria, or Miriam the Jewess. Enough reports of her writings are extant to establish her historicity. In Alexandria where she worked, the presence of mystery cults, Christianity, and the liberalization of the strict patriarchal attitudes of rabbinical Judaism toward women provided a perfect climate for the existence of a woman alchemist.
As Mary understood it, alchemy represented a fusion of the rational, the mystical, and the practical. This hybridization, which would have been impossible in classical Greece, would be expected in an eclectic Hellenistic society. Mary produced a three-part still, described by the alchemist Zosimos, illustrating the practical technological facet of her alchemy. She merged this invention with the imagery of the “above and below” that suffused the mystical Hermetic philosophy. It is not for her theoretical contributions that Mary is remembered but for the invention or elaboration of apparatuses that proved basic for the development of chemistry. These contributions include the three-armed still, the kerotakis, the hot ash bath, the dung bed, and the water bath (the last bears her name to this day, the bain-marie). This name was first applied by Arnald of Villanove in the 14th century. Mary was one of the few women in antiquity to attempt to incorporate the empirical-sensory elements of science within an explanatory-theoretical framework (Ogilvie 1986).
Science and myth are inextricably combined when the contributions of women to the scientific activity are considered. However, women were clearly involved in these activities to various degrees from the very beginning of recorded history. Women have a history as scientists and physicians and their names appear in the works of the classical writers. Although we may never be able to collect more factual information about these women because their existence is buried so deeply in the morass of history (a history that did not value their contributions), from the slim material that is available we know that women as well as their brothers always were interested in explaining their environment and improving human life.