Tuesday, April 18, 2017

O for Olympias: Female Scientists Before Our Time


Olympias of Thebes (c. 25 AD) was a Greek midwife and writer. We know about her through her writings and Roman author Pliny the Elder, and one could say from such that she was more than just a midwife.
An educated woman, Olympias wrote about her experiences as a midwife and gave recommended treatments for menstrual problems, infertility, prevention of miscarriages, female diseases, and abortion. Her knowledge of the curative properties of plants also led to some unusual prescriptions that apparently worked, for instance, bull’s gall, serpent’s fat, copper rust and honey rubbed on the genitals before intercourse for barrenness. 
Ancient Greek baby, sitting in a ceramic
 high potty chair and calling for his mother
Olympias was among an educated class of midwives. She and others like her (most in this series) were the gynecologist-obstetricians of their day. It’s been suggested that “gynecology, obstetrics, surgery, genetics, oncology, pathology, aphrodisiology, physiology, and pharmacology” are all part of their medical legacies. 

However, not all midwives were the same in ancient Greece. One author categorized them into three groups (Soranus, 1927):   
  •  Those with empirical knowledge – based on experience and observation. Knowledge passed down in the family and community. Female slaves sometimes served in this role.
  •  Those apart from personal experience who had theoretical training in gynecology and obstetrics.
  • Those with higher education, training and skills, and equal rank with male physicians.
Greco Roman Pottery Sculpture of Mother Figure Breastfeeding Infant





Source:
Marilyn Ogilvie, Joy Harvey, 2000. The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century. Routledge
G. Tsoucalas et al. “Midwifery in ancient Greece, midwife or gynaecologist-obstetrician?” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Aug 2014.

20 comments:

  1. Again you have come up trumps with yet another brave women.
    Thanks for the education Sharon.

    Yvonne.

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    1. It's wonderful what we know about them! They laid a foundation for others to follow.

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  2. An honourable and ancient career! I wish my school's careers counsellor had understood this before muttering that the dux of our school must just want to get a job when she chose midwifery. A man, what do you expect? I taught that girl and she had already wanted to be a midwife when she started Year 7.

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    1. Oh, that is sad, Sue. It was and still is an honorable profession. My sister had all six of her children with a midwife.

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  3. Very interesting!
    That's quite a list of categories in the medical legacy left by this educated class of midwives. Makes me wonder exactly what percentage is the female contribution to medical advancement...70% or 80%? Will we ever know? Probably not.
    Writer In Transit

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    1. I wish we knew. What this does say is that they worked to advance medicine along with male physicians. So much of history has ignored women's contributions to science in general.

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  4. Another interesting post. Pliny really got around for a first century writer/philosopher/scientist/politican.

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    1. He apparently was a prolific writer,the journalist of his day. I saw Pliny a lot in the sources!

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  5. Hi Sharon - fascinating information on Olympias - but also on how the ancients broke their medical or homeopathic knowledge down ... herbs from the hedgerows etc ... cheers Hilary

    http://positiveletters.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/o-is-for-orkney-islands-adapted-breeds.html

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    1. It would be fun to do a series on the ancient use of herbs and how many are still used today.

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  6. Intriguing mixture for barrenness. Didn't know snakes had fat :) The name Olympias reminded me for a moment of Alex the Great's mum, she had uncommon knowledge about snakes and stuff too, though she used her talents in an entirely different way, not half as benevolent to general public. Very interesting - each post in your series.

    Nilanjana.
    Madly-in-Verse

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    Replies
    1. I know. I had to laugh when I first saw this. And Alex the Great's mum had knowledge of snakes too. Today cobra venom is being used as a powerful pain killer.

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  7. I am behind and will catch up here because I love your theme. I'm not sure I would like my hubby to place honey on his...well you know...too messy plus I don't think it would work any more...thankfully:) this is interesting that they had a class distinction even in this area

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    1. Thanks, Birgit! I'm behind too and you've probably noticed I'm trying to do the same with yours. Ha-ha, agreed, my hubby wouldn't be happy either :)

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  8. It seems fitting that women contributed to the field of gynaecology, obstetrics, mid-wifery and pharmacology -and that men 'realised' they were better suited. Thanks Sharon, fascinating about the fat of the serpent ..

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    1. When I saw the list it made sense. Neat that some men recognized women's contributions to the field.

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  9. Both of the OB/Gyns I saw during my life were men, and my internist is a woman. One would think it would be just the opposite. I did not know that aphrodisiology was a science.

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    1. My first OB/GYNS were male too, but over time women started entering the profession. I switched over and was much happier. Aphrodisiology was listed in my source. Checking in Google Scholar, it had something to do with "love, pleasure and hormonal chemistries" (sexual arousal). Yep, people study this as a science.

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  10. Most of this sounds interesting except
    the prescriptions.

    M : )

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    1. Had to have been challenging for both the physicians and patients!

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