The Physician’s Secret

Her eyes fixated on the judge, unmoving. She was not afraid. She had done what she had to.

“You have just broken the law of Athens…you have just committed a capital crime of our law.”

Her chest rose as she stared up at the judge. His clean-shaven face was only a façade to his backwards ideologies yet his eyes still searched for truth. She knew she had done no wrong—she followed her passion, her desire to help her fellow women. But in doing so, she had dismissed the consequences of her backwards society. She could no longer outrun them.

“The law of Athens clearly states that no woman shall work as a physician and treat patients,” one male physician exclaimed in the courtroom.

Another yelled out, “You have committed a capital crime of the highest degree!”

She turned back to look at the white-marble courtroom, circumscribed by Greek columns and filled with all of the physicians of Athens. She knew they all shared a deep hatred of her and everything she had accomplished—all the good she had done and all the lives she had saved.

She simply carved a smile with her soft lips. If only they knew what she had really done. How she had studied under the greatest anatomist of her time, Herophilos, after receiving her education at the University of Alexandria—all under the guise of a man.

For decades no one had known that this silken-skinned, soft-spoken physician—one that all of the patients of Athens have come to know and love—was actually a woman in disguise. That for so many years those physicians who now sat in the courtroom had feared and despised her for her unwavering care and passion for her patients. All they needed was a reason to destroy her. And now they finally had it, right there in front of them—she had exposed herself! She had willingly told all of Athens that she was a woman! But why?

In the time of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, women were allowed to study gynecology, obstetrics, healing, and midwifery, but after his death tragedy struck. The discovery that women were having abortions clashed with the archaic viewpoint of the leaders of Athens and it became illegal for females to be physicians—it became a capital crime.

Yet here she stood—Agnodice—in all her virtue and strength, against all odds and all of the male physicians of Athens. They had first put her on trial under the pretense of practice corruption—for stealing their patients. Her own practice was thriving (once she had revealed herself to a patient refusing male aid all the women of Athens sought out her counsel) much to the chagrin of the other physicians. But instead of faltering at the subjugation of her practice, she defended herself with the very last thing any of them had expected—her greatest secret—that she was a woman and that she had fooled them all!

And this was their chance to strike—to destroy her, to destroy her practice, to put her away, lock her away, far away. But Agnodice’s smile only grew as the trial progressed. It scared the physicians, it really scared them. What did she know that they didn’t?

Then the moment came—it came in the form of a knock. At first it was a series of small taps on the front doors of the courtroom but soon the taps turned to hard knocks around the walls until they turned into hard beatings, coming from every direction, shaking and trembling the very Carrera-marble foundations of the columns that held up the court of justice and the judicial court of Athens in its entirety. Suddenly, the front doors burst open and every single woman, wife, daughter, and sister in Athens flowed into the courtroom. These were the very wives, daughters, and sisters of the physicians who now put Agnodice on trial. Their shouts and screams in the courtroom were deafening now. They each had Agnodice to thank for their health, and for their lives, in one way or another.

She knew this. That is why her smile hadn’t gone away throughout the trial. But now she stood stoic and expressionless, glaring at the judge whose eyes bulged in disbelief.

Her gaze softened as she spoke her words, each precisely crafted to withstand the storms of time and prejudice: “You wanted Athens. Here she is.”

It was on that very day in the 1st century BCE that the law was forever changed in Athens to allow women the right to practice medicine in the free world—to provide health and happiness to others through their knowledge, hard work, care and most importantly, the determination to nurture the world around them as they would their own kin.

Sources:

  1. Oakes, Elizabeth H. (2002), International Encyclopedia of Women Scientists, Facts On File Inc., ISBN 0-8160-4381-7

  1. Women in Medicine, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia, retrieved 2014-2-4

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