Friday, April 14, 2017

L for Lais: Female Scientists Before Our Time

Sometime around the 1st or 2nd century BC a Greek woman named Lais became a physician and midwife. But more than an exemplary career remembered, her disagreements with another Greek woman, a physician and poet named Elephantis, tell a different story. 

Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that they disagreed on issues of fertility, menstruation, abortifacient, and even the use of medicinal plants such as myrtle and cabbage root. From Pliny we also know that Lais treated rabies and fevers with a silver bracelet that contained wool from a black ram. He questioned her effectiveness as a physician. 

Despite all, Lais and Elephantis wrote medical books and were listed as 'authorities' in their fields. Elephantis's most talked about book, a rather graphic sex manual, drew some snickers from its readers. It could be one reason the two doctors bickered. Lais was a tad jealous? 

Further, Elephantis’s name is curious, as noted by Pliny. It was quite common at the time for courtesans (i.e., prostitutes to the upper class) to take on animal names. Pliny inferred in his writings that both Elephantis and Lais were courtesans. Apparently, Lais's name was also common among prostitutes. 



Scholars point out that the social standing of female physicians varied depending on whether they were freeborn women, freed women, or indeed slaves. Training as a physician mostly came in the form of an apprenticeship. A free women would have fared the best with a respected physician father or spouse. But there are some records where former female slaves had become physicians, as with Restituta (1st Century AD, Rome), who had been trained by her previous owner, Claudius Alcimus, physician to Caesar. 

Where Lais and Elephantis fit on this social ladder could certainly be debated, as well as their service being a godsend to female prostitutes seeking contraception and healthcare. Silphium would have been the herb of choice at the time. From the 7th century BC on, it was used as a contraceptive and also to induce abortion. As it could only be found near the coastal city of Cyrene (today Libya), the price of silphium grew to "more than its weight in silver" by First Century BC.

Silver coin from Cyrene depicting a stalk of silphium
(commonly used as a contraceptive and to induce abortion in ancient Greece)







Source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La%C3%AFs_(physician);
Women and Weasels: Mythologies of Birth in Ancient Greece and Rome By Maurizio Bettini, 2013, Univ. of Chicago Press, p. 189; https://graecomuse.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/irving_mhj_40-2-1.pdf; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_birth_control
http://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-ancient-technology/silphium-ancient-contraceptive-herb-driven-extinction-002268

Parker, Holt N. 1997. "Women Doctors in Greece Rome, and the Byzantine Empire." Women Physicians and Healers. Lillian R. Furst, ed. Univ. of Kentucky Press 131-150. 


20 comments:

  1. These ladies were most beneficial to how we live our lives today.
    Another great and brave lady. Thank you Sharon.

    Yvonne.

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    1. Reading about both women I found more information on the female conditions treated. It would appear their writings survived, which explains the detail.

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  2. Don't think I've ever heard of either of these women before. Fascinating!

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  3. It is interesting how women of any status could study, but some fared better than others. I imagine Lais' rabies treatment was not overly effective.
    Tasha
    Tasha's Thinkings - Shapeshifters and Werewolves

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    1. Huh...rabies would have been scary if the treatment was less than effective.

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  4. What a fascinating and informative series. Kudos to both women for their services.

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    1. These ladies competed with each other from what I read. Their feud fires the imagination.

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  5. Hi Sharon - I've never heard of these ... and to see the term elphantitis used as the name of female scientist ... my mind somewhat boggles - but each had their own way and helped the populous - or female half thereof ... cheers Hilary

    http://positiveletters.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/l-is-for-legendary-beasts-of-britain.html

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    1. Hmm... I suspect they were popular with other women. Each probably had their good and bad points.

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  6. I wonder if being courtesans made them feel outside the norm enough to be free to pursue their own opinions and viewpoints. Certainly different from today.

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    1. That's a really good point. It explains the sex manual and perhaps even abortion procedures, although it's not clear if abortion wascontroversial.

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    2. That was certainly the case in other societies, Lexa. Courtesans were the most free of women. They didn't have to worry about the men in their lives, no fathers, husbands or brothers to tell them what to do. And if, as seems likely, these ladies were working girls, the firm of medicine they wrote about was one that would have been the most important to them and their colleagues!

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  7. My doctor wasn't sure how to deal with my female problems in the 1960's and I can't imagine what it was like in B.C. times. Fascinating posts.

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  8. What a story! Absolutely fascinating.
    And it makes sense, in my opinion, that pronstitues became expert in the ways of women, so to speak. I suppose contraception methoes, abortions methodes and general feminine health was particularly important to them and their lives.
    I had never thought to that before.

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter - 1940s Film Noir

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  9. They would have been more sympathetic too. I wonder if it was a financial decision to work in both trades As courtesans, and there was probably no turning back, other women might have shunned them.

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  10. Well if they were courtesans, they really knew how to rise up from that negative status and became famous for their healing ways...and not trying to be funny there

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  11. Well you did make me smile, Brigit :) but I see your point. Freed from societal norms perhaps gave them greater freedom to be good female doctors...serving all women.

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