Influential Women in Medicine: Metrodora

Although women have long been considered the caregivers to their family members and communities, women weren’t formally allowed to become physicians until pretty recently. But throughout history there have been women who fought the tides of tradition and became influential physicians in their own right.

 

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Metrodora was a Greek physician somewhere between 200-400 CE. Although a few rare women physicians are known from this time period, such as Aspasia, also from Greece, Metrodora is the author of the oldest surviving medical text written by a women, called On the Diseases and Cures of Women. In keeping with the ancient traditions of midwifery, it was common at the time for women to assist with childbirth and some aspects of gynecology.  However, Metrodora’s book was unusual because it covered many other areas of medicine, but not obstetrics, at least not in the surviving manuscripts. Rather than focusing on obstetrics, she was clearly most interested in pathology and was greatly influenced by Hippocrates. Her manuscript made clear that medicine wasn’t just a scholarly interest for Metrodora, but that she took an active hands-on approach to treatment and she discusses her own observations from examinations. She was one of the first to suggest surgical treatment for both breast and uterine cancers.

 

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Her manuscript was translated into Latin somewhere between the 3rd and 5th centuries, and was widely read and referenced by medieval scholars, further influencing theory and practice of women’s medicine. The oldest known copy exists as a 263 pages of a parchment manuscript in Florence, Italy. Her manuscript was also the first known medical text to be organized by alphabetical headings for easy reference, a pretty clever idea that medical encyclopedias still use today.

 

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