Women in medicine: an epigraphic research

  Theocharis, Dimitrois N. "Women in medicine: an epigraphic research." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:TheocharisDN.Women_in_Medicine.2020.

The current study presents 28 epigraphic testimonies of women who practice medicine in a wide geographic area, such as: Attica, Macedonia, Thrace, Asia Minor and Hispania, from 3rd century BCE to 6th century CE, outlining at the same time the different terms used to articulate and refer to the medical profession. Although the majority of these women were referred to as μαῖα or ἰατρίνη, two cases of women were interestingly titled as ἰατρός, revealing perhaps that their level of knowledge and training was equal to that of their male colleagues. Altogether these epigraphic testimonies bring to light valuable information about the medical education and training of those women, which sometimes goes beyond the field of gynecology and obstetrics.

From the Αrchaic period to late antiquity, engaging in medicine was a privileged area only for men, who practiced the profession either privately or publicly, holding the positions as a public doctor (Chaniotis 2005:96-97; Pleket 1995:27-34; Krug 1985:196-199; Samama 2003:38) or chief doctor (Archiatros) (Römer 1990:85-88; Krug 1985:199- 201; Samama 2003:42-43; Nutton 2005:151-152). On the other hand, women were restricted to midwifery occupation and are called midwives (μαῖες). There are rare cases where women were called ἰατρός (doctor) or ἰατρίνη and may have the same professional rights as their male colleagues, as well as the same «scientific education». The fact that women were excluded from medicine during antiquity is evidenced by the absence of both extensive literary sources and epigraphic testimonies.

The present research aims to examine the epigraphic sources, which refer to women identified as ἰατρός, ἰατρίνη with all dialectical variants and μαῖες (midwives). Moreover, the research aims to identify their racial identity in combination with their medical practice and to highlight the geographical distribution of women related to the practice of medicine and gynecology. In addition, the social status and educational level of female doctors and midwives are considered. What is more, the way of acquiring the medical capacity, as well as the way of learning obstetrics are determined. Another goal of this research is to study the ways in which the medical and obstetricity capacity are declared.

The purpose of this study is to present a comprehensive and updated catalog of epigraphical testimonies referring to female physicians (ἰατρός, ἰατρίνη), midwives (μαῖες) and midwife physicians (ἰατρομαῖες). From this point of view, the framework covers a significant part of women healers in Greek antiquity. Each inscription examines literary elements, while attempting to ascertain the terms and conditions of the pursuit of the medical professions, in addition to defining the differences between the use of the terms μαῖα, ἰατρός, ἰατρίνη and ἰατρομαῖα. The heterogeneous geographical provenance of the inscriptions also reveals the different treatment of women therapists depending on regions and eras. The ultimate goal of the present research is to illuminate one of the aspects of medicine in ancient Greece and lay the foundations for further research.

The contribution of the present work not only explores the medical professional status of women, but also aspires to be integrated into studies of gender identity, highlighting the role of women in antiquity in a male-dominated environment, that of medicine. Therefore, comparisons with male colleagues are not being missed in the survey.

According to mythology, the goddess Athena was the first midwife to assist Leto in giving birth, and later taught her art to the goddess Artemis (Aristides 37.18). In ancient Greece the first midwife was Agnodike, who disguised herself as a man, in order to be taught the obstetrics by Herophilus, (Hyginus, Fabulae 274). Plato (Theaetetus 149b-e) mentions that the mother of Socrates, Phenarete was a midwife. At the same time, he presents the appropriate person to be a midwife as an older woman, who is over the childbearing age and therefore not being infertile, as she must have already experienced motherhood. Moreover, she had to use several medicines to deliver a birth with less pain, to help those women who cannot bear a child, but also to know the process of procuring ambortion if necessary. In Rome, the information on the profession of midwife comes from the work of Soranus of Ephesus. He (Female A 2-3 and B 4-5) presents the characteristics of the ideal midwife, pointing out that she must be sober, discreet, non-discriminatory, hardworking and have a training in diet, surgery and pharmacology.

Throughout Antiquity the midwife’s profession was quite common for an elderly woman. The apprenticeship of this art was conducted through attendance in other women’s birth processes. The midwives were responsible for the cutting of the umbilical cord [ὀμφαλητόμοι] (Plato, Theaetetus 149e; Hippocrates, Γυναικεῖα 1.46), while Plinius (Historia Naturalis 28.23) mentions that they could write books, giving various tips on conception and pregnancy problems. During the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the term ἰατρομαῖα, which is attested in two latin inscriptions and a Greek inscription from Asia Minor, has been formed, but the difference of this status from the professional μαῖα (CIL 6.9477, 9478 and MAMA III 292) is not clear. 

Along with the term μαῖα (midwife) in the inscriptions, also, the term ἰατρίνη is referred to, which does not exactly denote the woman doctor, but usually implies the midwife or the woman with medical skills corresponding to the fields of gynecology and obstetrics. In addition, the term ἰατρίνη describes women who care for children (LSJ, s.v. ἰατρίνη) (Kunzl 1995:309-322; Samama 2003:15-16; Nutton 2005:196). In some cases, the medical status is expressed in terms of various expressions related to the practice of medicine. Xenophon (Oeconomicus 7.37) states that the role of the caretaker woman was the care of her husband’s slaves without any discrimination of gender. So it was not uncommon for women to heal minor injuries or other illnesses found in women in need, slaves or children. Undoubtedly, some women cared for men, although social stereotyped perceptions discouraged or even banned such services (Flemming 2000:382-391; Nutton 2005:101-102, 196-197).

 The following study attempts to present the texts of the inscriptions referring to female physicians, midwives. The presentation of the inscription material is divided into three sub-categories: a) female physicians; b) midwives; c) midwife physicians.

Physician Women

The term ἰατρίνη is the feminine form of the word ἰατρός and means the one who heals. The word ἰατρός (physician) appears for the first time in Homer (Iliad 16:28) and Herodotus (3:130), while in Plato it is used to denote the specialist in medical art (Respublica 455e). The feminine form of the term is more prevalent in epigraphic testimonies than in literature. At the same time, O´Malley (1970:17) argues that the term in the feminine form often occurs from the Hellenistic era onwards.

The majority of the thirteen epigraphic testimonies, which refer to female doctors (ἰατρίνες), presented in this study have been cataloged by É. Samama (2003) in her research on the doctors of the ancient Greek world from the archaic period to late antiquity. Most of the inscriptions (8) refer to women doctors with the term ἰατρίνη in all of phonological variants (εἰατρείνη, εἰατρίνη, ἰατρείνη). In four (4) inscriptions, medical status is not explicitly stated in an appropriate term, but rather, implying a woman’s medical skills and knowledge. In one case the term Archiatrine occurs.


The term μαῖα appears in the ancient Greek literature since Homer’s time. In the Odyssey, Eurycleia is described as a μαῖα (Odyssey 19:482). The term does not describe the woman with a broader knowledge of obstetrics, but refers to an elderly woman who was Odysseus’ nurse. In later ancient Greek literature the term describes the mother or the nurse. Examples from Euripides’ Hippolytus (243) and Alcestis (393) are indicative of the term μαῖα associated with the woman who sometimes replaces the mother, but at the same time cares for women and children. Finally, the use of the term is associated with other terms related to midwifery art and signify the birth process.

In this chapter, twelve epigraphic testimonies, which prove the knowledge of some women in obstetrics, are presented. All of these women are described as midwives but without any particular reference to the particularities of their work and their skills. These inscriptions cover a long period between 3rd century BCE to 6th century CE and a large geographical range. Most of the inscriptions are mainly simple statements of obstetrician status of specific women.

Midwives Physicians

The list of female midwives physicians is completed by three separate cases that draw attention to the dual duties of physician and midwifery capacities at the same time. According to King (1998:179), the compound term ἰατρομαῖα indicates both the role of the midwife and that of the therapist in general. In this category are included three inscriptions. The first, which is also the oldest (4th century BCE) comes from Athens and is the inscription of Fanostrati (GVI 342; Clairmont 1970: 130, no. 53; SEG 33: 214; CEG 2 569; Samama 2003:109-110, no. 002). The second comes from Dion in Macedonia, belongs to the Roman period and refers to the doctor and midwife Eftychiani (Παπαγεωργίου 2011:249-256 [ed. pr.]; SEG 61: 494). Finally, the last inscription belongs to the Christian period and mentions Stefanida as a ἰατρομέα (MAMA III 292; Firatli-Robert 1964:177 no. 89; Nissen 2006:408).


The overview of the epigraphic evidence has highlighted some crucial points about the role and position of female doctors in the ancient world. In particular, the role of the physician was not sufficiently distinct from that of the midwife, making any assumption about the nature and responsibilities of each property precarious. The variety of used terms, as women are sometimes called midwives, occasionally physicians or midwives physicians, highlights the particular skills of each woman separately, specifying the conditions for practicing her art.

The absence of epigraphic testimonies for female physicians and midwives during the classical period may also indicate the suspicious or negative attitude of societies towards female therapists. This attitude is, also, evident in the literature and medical texts of the period, as the term ἰατρός (physician) does not refer to women, while the term μαῖα (midwife) does not fully reflect the status it had since the Hellenistic period.

Midwives began to be referred in inscriptions during the 3rd century BCE. These inscriptions recognize the value of women in obstetrics. In the years that followed until the Roman period, inscriptions referring to female physicians and midwives were increasing. Most of these are simple statements of midwifery or medical status, while some other inscriptions mention the name of the deceased, the patronymic or husband’s name, and the usual farewell to the deceased at the end of the text.

During the Hellenistic period there are several examples that demonstrate the recognition and acceptance of local communities towards female physicians and midwives. However, in addition to the simple and comprehensive inscriptions, more complex inscriptions appear during the Roman period in which medical or obstetrician status is sometimes attributed to in a literary way, thereby giving added value to the status of deceased women. The special literary ways indicate the social status of honored women, as well as their education and training.

During the Christian period, inscriptions are defined on the one hand by their verbal content, on the other one by the use of special symbols, such as the cross. These inscriptions have, sometimes, an eschatological notion that their good deeds are rewarded in the afterlife, whereas in other cases these are mere declarations of medical or obstetric status. These inscriptions have a simple form, indicating the name of the deceased and the title/occupation.

The examination of the Greek inscriptions on female physicians, midwives and midwives physicians is not only the single contribution of women to ancient medicine. The research could also be extended to individual medicine-related specialties, such as pharmacology and herbal medicine where the contribution of women is significant. In addition, the present research could be sufficient, if enriched with material from other primary sources of research, such as archaeological and papyrological findings, whose examination could complete the mosaic of women’s medicine in antiquity.

Works Cited

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SEG = Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (vols. 1-58). Leiden, Amsterdam.