Sometime in the fourth century BC, Agnodice, an Athenian woman dressed as a man, was brought before a board of jury full of incredibly angry men, allegedly accused of seducing women of Athens. However, she calmly denied the allegation and took off her clothes one by one before the full hall to prove her identity as a woman and consequently, opened a new chapter in the history of medical science. Although there is no documentary evidence in support of the story, some eminent scholars believe it as a historical fact, while others place it in the realm of myth and legend. The story of Agnodice, also called Agnidika, told by the Roman author Gaius Julius Hyginus in his Fabulae and credited as the first female midwife or physician in ancient Athens, has been frequently used as a precedent for women practicing midwifery or medicine. But she is generally believed to be a legendary figure, rather a well-constructed myth and not a historical figure. Nevertheless, she is undoubtedly an exemplary character, inspiring women to break social taboos and study medicine for millennia.
Legend says, Agnodice was born around the fourth century BC into a wealthy Athenian family. During that period, the mortality rate of the infants and mothers during childbirth was very high in the city of Athens, because the Athenian women vehemently opposed to accept the help of male physicians. On the other side, during those days, women practicing as a physician were considered a crime punishable by death, because in those days, apart from her husband, a woman was not supposed to look or touch a man's body. In fact, during those days, women in Greece had been completely barred from studying, let alone studying medicine and practicing as a physician, as they were thought to be too weak-minded and too nervous to deal with blood and gore and too emotional and irrational to handle illness, injury and death. During those days, elderly and experienced female relatives or friends of the family used to handle childbirths, but they often failed to save the situation, due to lack of medical knowledge, resulting in the death of the prospective mother or the baby.
However, even then, despite the looming danger and risk involved and despite the willingness of the newly trained men under Hippocratic Oath to take over the gynaecological profession and help the prospective mothers, women of Athens adamantly refused to let male physicians perform examinations or help with deliveries due to the traditional sense of embarrassment and inherent shyness. Under the circumstances, Agnodice appeared in the social scene and determined to do something about the premature deaths and excruciatingly difficult deliveries, she decided to study and learn medicine. But as women were not allowed to study, she cut her hair short, disguised herself as a man and travelled to Alexandria to study medicine under Herophilos of Chalcedon, a follower of Hippocrates and regarded as one of the earliest anatomists, who was also one of the co-founders of the famous medical school at Alexandria.
After completing her studies and equipped with a great deal of knowledge in medicine, Agnodice started to work as a physician in her home city of Athens, disguised as a man, because women were forbidden from practicing medicine. The legend says, during that period, one day while she was walking down a street, dressed as a man, she heard the agonized screams of a woman in labour and rushed in to help. But, as she expected, the woman became angry to find an unknown young man in her room, insulted her in rude language and ordered to leave her alone immediately or to face the dire consequences. Agnodice was ready for the situation and coolly pulled aside her robes to reveal her bosoms to identify her sex. After the unimaginable revelation, the amazed and relieved expectant mother had no reason to refuse the unexpected help, which she needed badly and the medical knowledge of Agnodice resulted in a safe delivery.
As the direct outcome of her first successful mission, news about Agnodice spread quickly throughout the female community and suddenly, it seemed that the services of a particular male doctor were constantly in demand among the women of the city. As her popularity grew with female patients, the envious male physicians accused her of seducing the women of Athens, who suspected that Agnodice was somehow seducing their wives, sisters and daughters. Ridiculously, it was also claimed that some women even faking illnesses, with the intention to be seen and touched by Agnodice in the pretext of physical examination. It is because of these accusations that she was brought to stand trial at the court convened on a hill called the Areopagus near Athens. During the trial, when her rivals attacked her with verbal taunts, Agnodice endured for some time all the slander and accusations without any protest and then, to prove them wrong, displayed the most obvious proof before the full house and pulled open her robes to expose herself. This was a direct blow on her furious opponents, but immediately they changed their strategy and demanded her death sentence for violating the law that does not allow women to work in any branch of medicine. However, when the judges were about to deliver the sentence and set a date for her execution, a large group of women, including the wives of the city’s physicians, rulers and dignitaries rushed into the courtroom to protest their husbands trying to execute Agnodic, the angel of a woman, who helped them in their hours of crisis. Faced with the wrath of their wives, the men finally agreed to change the law to allow women in Athens to be treated by female physicians and Agnodice was acquitted of the charges.
Whether a myth or based on fact, Agnodice is regarded as the first female gynaecologist of the world. The popular story of the determined woman, which has been retold many times and was translated into English in 1535, is one to which the world of medicine has long ascribed.