Agnodice, the first female midwife in Ancient Athens


Meet Agnodice (Αγνοδίκη,) the first female midwife in ancient Athens according to the Roman author Gaius Julius Hyginus in his Fabulae.

Once in 4th Century BC Athens, there lived a young woman named Agnodice who was appalled by the number of maternal and perinatal mortalities in the city.

As females could not practise midwifery or medicine, she disguised herself: she cut off her hair, dressed herself as a man and traveled to Alexandria.

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She studied medicine under Herophilus, a Greek physician, and later returned to Athens to put in practice what she had learnt.

There she met her first female patient in labour and offered to help with the delivery but the woman declined because Agnodice appeared to her as a man.

Then Agnodice removed her clothes, revealing that she was a woman, and was permitted to treat her.

She began attending to women this way. But to the other doctors seemed suspicious for women to seek care during their pregnancy by Agnodice, whom they considered as a man.

They believed that she was a seducer and corruptor of women and brought her in front of the jury (Areopagus) to stand trial for her supposed actions.

Αγνοδίκη: Η πρώτη γυναίκα γιατρός της Αρχαίας Ελλάδας (και του κόσμου) έχει απίστευτη ιστορία - Σεραπείον

And what did she do there to prove her innocence?

She simply removed her clothes to show the court that she was a woman but the men who brought her to court were outraged because she had broken Athenian law by practicing medicine as a woman. So she was sentenced to death!

In response to this, 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 for us.”

So the Athenians changed the law. Since then, women were allowed to legally study and practice midwifery in Athens.

Dean Kalimniou is a lawyer, author and heavily involved in the Greek-Australian community.

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Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor