You may walk the length and breadth of Athens but you will never find the house where Agnodice lived nor will you find her last resting place. Modern Athens was rebuilt on an ancient city and Agnodice lived in the 4th century B.C. This has given rise to the belief that she is only a mythical figure. But whether her story is fact or fiction, it is something worth reading about. Her story was first documented by writer Hyginus in 1st century B.C.
Agnodice always wanted to be a doctor. But women in Greece were prohibited from studying Medicine. So great was her ambition that she cut her hair and dressed like a man. Under this guise she was able to enroll under physician Herophilus in Alexandria. A brilliant student, she graduated with the highest marks in 350 B.C.
After completion of her medical studies, Agnodice returned to Athens and started her practice. Her popularity got her into trouble with other doctors, who said that “he” was seducing and corrupting married women. Women in those days, preferred to be treated by midwives rather than male doctors. Maternity and Infant mortality was very high. Moved by the pain of a woman in the throes of labour, Agnodice volunteered to treat her. But the woman refused, taking her for a male doctor. So Agnodice revealed herself as a woman by lifting up her skirts to show her female body.
Now women flocked to her for treatment. It made fellow doctors extremely jealous. They wanted her punished for deceit and false pretences. It was also against the law for a woman to practise medicine. The courts meted out the death sentence. But her loyal female patients including the wives of her accusers marched into court in her defence.
“You men are not spouses but enemies since you are condemning her, who discovered health for us,” they said.”If Agnodice is executed, then we will all die with her.”
So powerful and convincing was their defence that the court acquitted her. Soon the law prohibiting women from practising medicine was rescinded. Women were now free to become doctors.
Whether Agnodice was a mythical figure or not, she has become a symbolic figure for female doctors even today.