The Cross-Dressing, Flashing Physician
Once upon a time in Athens, there lived a young woman named Agnodice. Agnodice wanted to be a doctor but the law forbade women and enslaved people from practising medicine. Unafraid of the law, Agnodice decided to disguise herself as a man, cutting off her hair and dressing in clothing usually worn by men. Agnodice’s studies with a doctor called Herophilus went well, and she was soon seeing patients of her own, all the while remaining in disguise.
On one occasion, Agnodice visited a woman who was in labour. The woman was distrustful of the male doctor, but Agnodice revealed herself (quite literally) to the patient and, now satisfied that Agnodice was a woman, a bond of trust was established.
Word spread amongst Athenian women that Agnodice was in fact a woman in disguise, and she soon proved to be more popular amongst female patients than other (male) doctors. Presumably this was because the women were more comfortable discussing their health, particularly their reproductive health (see 1. in A few things to note below), with another woman.
Even today patients interact differently with male and female doctors, If you’re interested in reading further, see Alyahya, et al. 2019 in the source section.
The other doctors soon became suspicious because Agnodice, who remained in disguise, was the only person Athenian women would allow to treat them. The doctors were quick to accuse Agnodice of unprofessional behaviour, suggesting that the women were not really ill, but had been pretending in order to have affairs with Agnodice.
A group of judges called the Areopagites summoned Agnodice and accused her (still in disguise) of improper behaviour with her patients. Agnodice simply undressed to show that she was a woman and was incapable of impregnating women with illegitimate children; a huge concern for men of the time. In the ancient world women’s bodies were policed to ensure that they were not given the opportunity to engage in pre- or extra- marital affairs, which would compromise the legitimate family line.
Despite Agnodice having revealed herself (again, literally) as a woman, the doctors continued to be outraged, but the women of Athens stormed into the court and defended Agnodice, stating:
“You are not husbands, but enemies, because you condemn her who discovered safety [or health] for us.”
The story ends with the law being amended to ensure that women could practise medicine in the future. And they all lived happily ever after…
It’s a great story. Cross-dressing, women in science, creativity and innovation, women defending women, an underdog overcoming adversity – what more do you want?
Unfortunately, we simply do not know if Agnodice ever existed, and it’s highly likely that she was a mythical figure. There are numerous reasons for suggesting that Agnodice is a mythical figure. Firstly, an Athenian law which banned women and enslaved people from practising medicine did not exist in any period that we know of. In fact, women (primarily enslaved women) were often trained as midwives and physicians as male doctors tended to avoid physically examining a woman’s body.
Secondly, the only place we find reference to Agnodice is in Hyginus’s Fabulae, a collection of myths and biographies of mythical or pseudo-historical figures. Hyginius is a notoriously difficult figure to pin down, we do not know when he lived, and the Fabulae exists in Greek, although it was almost certainly translated from Latin (which, sadly, we do not have a copy of). Thirdly, as Prof. Helen King points out, the story has many parallels with ancient novels – it’s simply too far-fetched to reflect reality.
However, the tale of Agnodice has been used by women to support their role in medicine since the 17th century, and this is perhaps more important than whether Agnodice existed or not. Women in medicine, particularly those specialising in women’s reproductive health and midwifery were able to invoke Agnodice as ‘the first midwife’ and could therefore trace the precedent of women in medicine back to ancient times.
‘[The story of Agondice]’s main use is within the history of medicine and, from the seventeenth century to the present day, when midwives have defended themselves against a male-dominated medical profession seeking to medicalise childbirth, Agnodike has been invoked as fact, and hence as a valuable past precedent.’King, 1986: 55.
A few things to note:
- There is much debate about whether Agnodice was a midwife or a physician. For the sake of brevity, we shall assume that Agnodice was a doctor with training in or who specialised in women’s reproductive health and midwifery.
- It has been suggested that Agnodice was transgender. She is the namesake of a Swiss foundation ‘working for the integration of those who are transsexual, intersex or transgender’ (King, 2015). Once again, Agnodice (real or not) is invoked for good: a means of representing and supporting individuals who may be underrepresented, overlooked or discriminated against in their field or society.
Hyginus, Fabulae 274
Alyahya G, Almohanna H, Alyahya A, Aldosari M, Mathkour L, Aldhibaib A, Al-Namshan Y, Al-Mously N. Does physicians’ gender have any influence on patients’ choice of their treating physicians?. J Nat Sci Med 2019;2:29-34.
Keaveney, A. Bartley, A. 2017. Hyginus, Fabula 274.10-13: The Story of Agnodice. Giornale Italiano di Filologia. Vol. 69, pp. 171-189.
King, H. 1986. Agnodike and the Profession of Medicine. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society. No. 32, pp. 53-77.
King, H. 2013. The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence. Farnham: Ashgate.
King, H. 2015. Agnodice: Down and Dirty? Wonders and Marvels [Online].
Women in Medicine. 2018. Women in Antiquity [Online].