Sunday, 20 July 2014

Medical Matriarchs: The First Female Physicians

I just read a great article on three female Western medical physicians. Anandibai Joshi, Keiko Okami, and Sabat Islambouli eventually became among the first licensed female doctors in their respective countries: India, Japan and Syria. The picture above is so beautiful. It was due to the university they attended, run by Quakers, that these ladies were able to obtain their education.
women doctors 1885
The picture of awesome.
It made me want to find out who, if history knows, was the first actual female physician in recorded history. While women played so many roles in medicine as healers, I wanted to know when the term physician was first used in regards to a female healer. So I dragged out a couple of old history of medicine books I have and found two that I found interesting.

First, the term physician is problematic, as the etymology suggests:
early 13c., fisicien "a healer, a medical practitioner," from Old French fisiciien "physician, doctor, sage" (12c., Modern French physicien means "physicist"), from fisique "art of healing," from Latin physica "natural science" Distinguished from surgeon from c.1400. The ph- spelling attested from late 14c
To use the term in the ancient world, then, is based on the translation and their understanding of what a physician would be in that culture. To many, it has to be the first documented, societal accepted (example; licensed), and formally trained woman. The female doctors of Egypt fit this description. Being a doctor in Ancient Egypt was a big deal. It was a mix of spiritual practice, various healing methods, study and hard work. It was also open to both upper class men and women. They studied as apprentices to older physicians.

Memphis and Saqqara - a resting place of an awesome woman.

Merit Ptah is believed by scholars to be the first physician ever named in history. Her name means "beloved of the God Ptah". Ptah was the god of creation, arts and fertility, so if this god was her namesake, she had a powerful ally. She lived sometime in 2700 BCE during the Old Kingdom in Egypt. All we know about Merit Ptah is from her tomb, found near Memphis in the huge burial ground of Saqqara. On her tomb, her son - a priest- wrote that she was the chief physician of the women. An impact crater on Venus is named after her, giving her even more immortality. We'll remember her long after what's their names of the cover of People this week.
Merit Ptah likeness in her sarcophagus - doctor's bag not shown.
Another probable first physician was Peseshet (ca. 2500). We only know about this female physician because there's a stela at Giza in the tomb of her son, Akhethetep, a high official. It says that says she was the overseer of doctors. She was probably a physician in her own right as well as a supervisor and administrator of an entire body of female physicians. At the time, many women worked at the medical school at Sais.
In her son's tomb, a possible picture of his mom: wonder if she had to beg for funding?

So why in this day and age do we care who the first women physicians are? The reason is that we need to celebrate anyone who bucks the norm. Most societies in the world, before and now, try to limit women's roles by denying them access to higher education, careers, and voting, using the excuse that they are just not capable or it's not womanly. Clearly these women stand out as arguments against that type of thinking, and we need to remember and honour that.

Book References I used and recommended:

Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. University of Oklahoma Press: 2002.

Allen, James P. The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt. Metropolitan Museum of Art: 2005

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