ALAN WEBER: Hello, and welcome to "Cyber Tower." My name is Alan Weber, and I teach writing and literature in the English department at Cornell University. I originally came to Cornell as the managing editor of the history of science journal, "Isis." And I maintain a research program in the history of medicine as well as in literature.
Today, we will be talking about the entry of women into professional medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a story about perseverance and courage, but also about disappointment and social prejudice, as women fought to establish themselves as respected health practitioners in Europe and America. For the past five years, I've been writing a general history on this topic.
In this presentation, we will first survey how women have been actively involved in healing throughout history. Then, we will look at three 19th century medical pioneers, Elizabeth Blackwell, Sophia Jex-Blake and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Finally, we'll speculate on why after a brief period of success for women physicians worldwide, there was a backlash against them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Our story of women healers begins with the Egyptians, who developed effective contraceptives and used natural antibiotics like wine, honey and copper ore. Many of the Egyptian healing deities were female. Isis was the goddess of knowledge, science and healing. Ubastet aided mothers in childbirth. And Meskhenet also helped to ease labor pains. From a memorial stone, we know that a woman named Peseshet served as lady director of lady physicians.
In the classical Greek period, the maia, or midwife, aided women in childbirth. But there was also a female medical specialist called the [? omphalotomos, ?] literally the cutter of the umbilical cord, and the [INAUDIBLE] maia, which we can translate as doctor midwife. As with the Egyptians, the Greeks revered female healing goddesses, such as Hygieia and Panacea, the daughters of Asclepius. The Greek physician Hippocrates of Chios wrote extensively about the diseases of women and childbirth.
During the Roman era, women doctors were practicing throughout the empire. A gravestone from [? Amendola ?] reads, "to my [? premila, ?] medica." "Medica" is the feminine form of the Latin word "medicus," or doctor.
From the early Middle Ages comes the first medical text authored by a woman. Her name was Metrodora, and she lived in the Byzantine Empire, but nothing is known about her.
Italian centers of learning in the late Middle Ages began to allow women to practice medicine, and even to teach medical topics. At the famous Medieval Medical School located at Salerno on the coast of Italy, the celebrated physician Trotula taught gynecology and obstetrics in the 11th century.
The other well-known medical figure of the Middle Ages was the 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen, who oversaw an abbey near the Rhine River in what is now Germany. In her several surviving books, she synthesized the best knowledge of her day on herbal medicines and medical care.
During the Renaissance, the guilds and corporations which controlled medical services grew less favorable to unlicensed women dabbling in medicine. In England, the London College of Physicians prevented women from practicing medicine by only offering medical licenses to university-trained physicians. Universities at the time, of course, were entirely closed to women. But throughout England, women had always been dispensing herbs, setting bones, doing minor surgery and assisting in childbirth for their neighbors.
Professional medical organizations increasingly demonized these amateur folk and women healers as quacks and poisoners. This was the general condition of women healers that prevailed into the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus when Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake attempted to obtain professional medical training in the 19th century, they faced a long tradition of opposition from professional medical societies.
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This is a story of perseverance and courage, but also about disappointment and social prejudice as women fought to establish themselves as respected health care practioners in Europe and America.
This video is part 1 of 5 in the Storming the Citadel series.