Following Agnodike and Phaethousa: gender and transformation in the reception of ancient medicine

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Faculty of Arts

Abstract

My research investigates why stories from classical Greece and Rome continued to be so popular in medical writing from the late sixteenth century up to the nineteenth century, despite the revival of human dissection providing an alternative way of understanding the body. I explore how the content of these stories was adjusted to fit new explanatory frameworks, and how they can help us to consider the relative importance of different parts of the body in defining sexual identity, in cases where this was disputed. I focus on two classical stories, and analyse the different versions of them told by medical and other writers across Europe.

One is the story of Agnodike, the 'first midwife', told by the Latin writer Hyginus: the other is the story of Phaethousa, who grew a beard when her husband left her, told in one of the case histories of the Hippocratic 'Epidemics'. In an imagined Athens in which women are forbidden to be midwives, the virgin Agnodike disguises herself as a man, trains, and returns to become so popular that the male practitioners lose work. Accused of seducing her patients, this apparently male Agnodike reveals her true sex in court, then being accused of breaking the law preventing women from entering medical practice. Phaethousa is described as having ceased to menstruate after her husband was exiled; she became masculine in appearance and grew a beard and, despite medical intervention, she died. As part of the 'Epidemics' collection, this story comes with the authority of Hippocrates, whose influence in medicine increased after the Hippocratic corpus was translated in full into Latin in 1525.

I will focus on the early modern period, using these stories to uncover the complexity of medical views on sex and gender, but will extend my study to the nineteenth century, when they were still cited; for example, in the 1830s, James Young Simpson quoted the story of Phaethousa in discussing ovarian failure. Both stories were so fundamental that the early modern reader would expect to find them in any histories of midwifery or in discussions of sex change. Both concern the extent to which external appearance is a reliable guide to the realities of the body; they were used to support arguments about the medical profession, the proper role of women, and the body. But who told them, why, and how did the content of these stories differ as they were retold in the context of different ideas about disease causation and different models of the body?

This is not simply a linear narrative in which changing views of sex characteristics were imposed on ancient accounts. By looking at how far the visible body was thought to be an accurate reflection of the hidden interior, and demonstrating the coexistence of contradictory models of the body, my work challenges a number of current orthodoxies, in particular Thomas Laqueur's still-influential model of a pre-modern 'one-sex body' - in which the organs of generation are the same in men and women, merely differing in location - being replaced by a 'two-sex body' in the late eighteenth century. Concentrating on these two stories and their different interpretations also makes it possible to assess how far the vernacular medical literature of the early modern period deviates from established models of the body found in Latin treatises.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit?

The story of Agnodike is one with a long history of use in debates about the proper role of women in medicine, and as such has resonances today. It is of interest to midwives and nurses, and also to other women in the medical profession, as it illustrates how a classical precedent can be reworked to fit different professional and political agendas, either promoting women's professional medical practice or being used as an argument against it.
The changing understandings of Phaethousa's illness will be of particular interest to those working on intersex, a growing field internationally and one which is well aware of the power of history in affecting policy and practice.
The wider public is very interested in issues of gender and sex change; for example, in early 2010 the Wellcome Collection hosted The Identity Project, part of which was a major exhibition exploring 'the tension between the way we view ourselves and how others see us', featuring the experience of April Ashley, one of the first people in the UK to undergo gender reassignment.

How will they benefit?

As a result of recent changes in their professional training, there are now a number of midwife-historians whose work would benefit from considering the different ways in which Agnodike was used historically; the sheer range of different uses of her story acts as a warning against taking earlier histories of medicine outside the context in which they were written.
The intersex community will be interested in seeing the variety of responses among earlier medical writers to the story of Phaethousa, which continued into nineteenth-century discussions of hermaphrodites. As an example of how medical 'orthodoxy' changes over time, her story will help those currently considering the relationship between the visible body and the identity of the person.
The wider public will be able to use both stories to think about the politics of medical treatment.

What will be done to ensure they benefit?

I will use my established links with practising midwives and with nurse education, writing pieces for relevant journals and websites, and speaking to medical groups (see Impact Plan). In particular, I will write an article on Agnodike aimed at practising midwives, and I will contact the national and international Intersex Associations and offer to write a summary of my argument for their websites.
Reaching the wider public will be done in conjunction with the University of Reading Press Office and also through my personal contacts with radio producers and through my external talks to groups such as the Classical Association, the University of the Third Age, and schools. I am already talking in 2010 to a Classical Association group in Bristol (on Phaethousa) and to St Paul's Girls' School (on Agnodike), in each case because they requested this topic. St Paul's Girls' School identified Agnodike as a relevant topic because they perceived her as a link between Classics and science, and also as a way of understanding women in the history of medicine.

Publications

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King H (2015) Last word: Agnodice in The Practising Midwife

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King H (2013) Sex and gender: the Hippocratic case of Phaethousa and her beard in EuGeStA: Journal on Gender Studies in Antiquity

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King H (2013) Motherhood and health in the Hippocratic corpus: does maternity protect against disease? in M├Ętis. Anthropologie des mondes grecs anciens

 
Description My work on two stories from antiquity - Phaethousa the woman whose Hippocratic case history describes how she grows a beard when her husband leaves, and Agnodice the 'first midwife' who reveals her body to prove her innocence on a charge of seduction - has shown the vitality and flexibility of the classical tradition in the early modern period, with the stories being used not only in medical discussions of the body but also far more widely, and in particular in the contested field of the politics of childbirth. For example, eighteenth-century men-midwives could write Agnodice out of midwifery history, while midwives embellished her story to reflect their own situations. I have shown how variations in the telling of these two stories enable us to trace the lines of readership between writers in different genres, and how women's engagement with the stories differs from that of men. In addition, the stories present a serious challenge to the one-sex/two-sex model of Laqueur's book, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Instead of the 'watershed' in views of the body being in the eighteenth century, and tied to the emergence of modernity, my detailed analysis of the transmission of the stories suggests, first, that it is in the sixteenth rather than the eighteenth century that there was most debate over whether women and men had the same sexual organs, only in different locations; and second, that one-sex and two-sex models coexisted not only before, but also after, the eighteenth century.
Exploitation Route This research concerns surprising and engaging stories from the classical world that were used to defend various professional positions, or attack those of others. In the course of the research, it became apparent that midwives today no longer know the story of Agnodice, yet it concerns many of the gendered boundaries that continue to be an issue in birthing practices. Furthermore, Agnodice has been claimed by a different community, that of transgender. This illustrates the continuing power of the Greco-Roman classics as 'good to think with' for marginalised groups as much as for the socially secure.
Sectors Creative Economy,Healthcare

URL http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2015/01/agnodice-down-and-dirty.html
 
Description After giving a talk to a meeting of the Royal College of Midwives with the RCOG in which I mentioned Agnodice 'the first midwife', midwives present suggested that I do something to make their profession more aware of the uses of this figure in its history. I therefore approached 'The Practising Midwife' and they are featuring my work. I also discussed my work on the other key figure in my book. The One-Sex Body on Trial (Phaethousa), in a piece for The Conversation.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Healthcare
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description 'Agnodice's first patient: gendering childbirth in classical and early modern Europe' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact An analysis of the different versions of the story in which Agnodice is either 'the first midwife' or 'the first woman doctor' and their uses in the early modern period

none
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description 'Between male and female in ancient medicine' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A discussion of the work in progress on this project, set in the context of a conference on 'bodies in transition'; led to a publication.

I was invited to apply for a fellowship with the Morphomata project in Cologne; I did so but withdrew when another similar opportunity came through.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description 'Following Phaethousa: the Hippocratic bearded woman story in early modern Europe' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paper selected for the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Amherst, MA: Panel: SX-16 'The True Sex? Cases of gender ambivalence and their impact in Europe'. I worked alongside scholars studying modern gender ambivalence, arguing that the story of Phaethousa makes it clear that many different approaches existed in the ancient and early modern worlds.

more benefit to my research from the other participants in the panel in which I spoke
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description 'How to avoid growing a beard: the Hippocratic case history of Phaethousa and her readers' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact this was a lecture for students at the University of Vienna, in an invited series of international speakers; I used the story of Phaethousa to introduce them to Hippocratic medicine and to problematise the notion of a 'case history'

I was then invited to apply to be a visiting professor at Vienna, and was successful in this, thus spending 3 months in 2014 teaching students from across the university about women's studies and gender studies
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description 'Reading the bearded lady: Phaethousa of Abdera' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A brief account of the history of the reception of this story up to the modern period

none
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description 'Sex and gender: the Hippocratic case of Phaethousa and her beard' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was part of an activity organised by the international network 'EuGeStA' to which my department belongs, and involved mostly French and German speakers. I gave an analysis of the role of the beard in determining gender in antiquity, and of the issue of whether by growing a beard Phaethousa is crossing sex categories

I published the paper in an open access journal
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description 'Telling the story of an ancient Greek midwife in the seventeenth century: making sense by mixing disciplines' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact paper exploring the interdisciplinary methodology behind my project

This was part of an interdisciplinary meeting of the 'Arts and their Audiences' research group
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description 'The "Hippocratic imperative" and the early modern Phaethousa: reading the classical past' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Paper setting out the challenge of the Phaethousa material to Thomas Laqueur's theory of the one-sex body

This was an invited paper for a conference, 'Thomas Laqueur revisited', at which Laqueur himself was present
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
 
Description 'Transmitting knowledge between languages: Phaethousa between Latin and English' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact This was a paper in a panel looking at the theme of translation. It contrasted the reception of Phaethousa in Latin and English vernacular sources in the 16th c, arguing that the apparent novelty of some of the latter in fact derived from the Latin medical traditions of reading her story.

this was presented at the Sixteenth Century Society Conference, Fort Worth
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Agnodice the time-traveller 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation keynote/invited speaker
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Lecture on the modern receptions of Agnodice, primarily 19th/20th c

I was invited to do something on Agnodice for a website teaching Latin; I have not yet had time to do this. Also there are plans for a book.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Ancient Medicine symposium: talk on 'The early modern Phaethousa: transformations of a Hippocratic case history' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Concentrating on some unusual variants of the story in the sixteenth century, I used the story to illustrate the range of receptions of ancient medicine in various genres of writing in this period. This was aimed at an audience from a range of disciplines including early career researchers.

increased awareness of the importance of looking at how ancient medical stories are used/abused in subsequent centuries
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Classical Association talk on 'Agnodike: Reinterpreting Women in the History of Medicine' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact this was a talk to a Classical Association/Hellenic Society evening event, aimed at placing the story of Agnodice within a wider perspective on the history of women and the body

audience were previously unaware of the many uses of this classical story in later medicine
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Classics Confidential podcast: The flashing midwife 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This is a short podcast about Agnodike, made for the 'Classics Confidential' channel run from my department. It has been seen by over 2000 people to date.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkMILds1Gg4&feature=youtu.be



2020 views to October 2013
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkMILds1Gg4
 
Description Leonardo da Vinci Society: 'Leonardo and the female body' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Following my involvement in the public exhibition 'Leonardo: Anatomist' at the Royal Gallery, Buckingham Palace, I was invited to give a discussion of how the representation of women in Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical works challenges current assumptions about the 'one-sex' body. I was then asked to do further talks on the topic.

This talk was itself an impact arising from taking part in the exhibition (audio guide, advice on display, talk to the public)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description launch of the Royal College of Midwives archive at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists: talk on 'Uncovering the history of women's medicine' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk delivered at the launch of the Royal College of Midwives archive at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I used the 'uncovering' theme to talk about Agnodice as the first midwife literally uncovering her body. I made contact with the editor of the practitioners' journal The Practising Midwife, in which I have since published 5 short articles.

The audience was practising midwives, librarians and archivists. As a result of this presentation I was encouraged to submit a short piece to a midwifery journal.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011