Throughout history, women were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were also nurses, counselors and midwives who traveled from home to home and village to village. They have always been healers. In around 3500 BCE, Queen Puabi of Ur was buried with surgical instruments so that she might practice surgery in the afterlife. In ancient Egypt, priestesses of Isis were regarded as physician-healers who obtained their healing powers from the goddess Isis herself. Egyptian records even show that women studied at the royal medical school at Heliopolis as early as 1500 BCE.
With the fall of Corinth in 150 BCE, Greek female prisoners were taken to Italy where those with medical knowledge fetched the highest price. In his collection of work, called Sixteen Books on Medicine, Aëtius of Amida, a Byzantine Greek physician, describes the surgical techniques of Aspasia, a GrecoRoman female surgeon. These books served as a prominent surgical texts well into the 11th century where an Italian woman by the name of Tortula, herself an established physician, became well-known for teaching male doctors about the female body and childbirth. Later in history, though, spoil-sport King Henry VIII of England proclaimed that “No carpenter, smith, weaver or women shall practice surgery.”
Women’s mythological association to birth, death and immortality are well documented, and this leads to the goddesses’ association with healing and restoration even though they might later be more well-known by their other functions. In ancient Greece, for example, the goddess Athena cured blindness and the goddess of Marriage, Hera, was also known as the chief healing deity. Other healing goddesses in ancient Greece include Aceso, the goddess of curing sickness and healing wounds, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, Epione, the goddess of the soothing of pain, Hygieia, the goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation, and Panacea, the goddess of the universal cure. Statues of Hygeia and Panacea were located in over 300 healing temples throughout Greece, where oracles were interpreted by male and female priests who prescribed treatments to their patients.
An older goddess of healing is the Babylonian goddess Nintinugga. Another name borne by this goddess is Nm-din-dug (“the lady who restores to life”). After the Great Flood, she helped “breathe life” back into mankind. She is often spoken of as “the great physician” and, accordingly, played a specially prominent role in incantations rituals to relieve those suffering from diseases.
In Egyptian mythology, Sekhmet plays a dual role of a warrior goddess and goddess of healing. Another notable Egyptian healing goddess is Serqet – the goddess of fertility and medicine. She was also the deification of the scorpion. As well as being seen as stinging the unrighteous, Serqet was seen as one who could cure scorpion stings and the effects of other venoms such as snake bite. Like Sekhmet, Serget also has a war aspect as she was often said to protect the deities from Apep, the great snake-demon of evil, sometimes being depicted as the guard when Apep was captured.
Ixchel is the 16th-century name of the aged jaguar goddess of midwifery and medicine in ancient Maya culture. She is depicted on the so-called “Birth Vase”, a Classic Maya container which shows a childbirth presided over by various old women, headed by an old jaguar goddess. On another Classic Maya vase, the jaguar goddess is shown acting as a physician, further confirming her identity as Ixchel.
In Irish mythology, the goddess Airmed was one of the Tuatha De Danann (“Tribes of the goddess Dana or Danu”, a supernatural race who represent the main deities of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland). With her father Dian Cecht and brother Miach, she healed those injured in the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh. As healer, Airmid and Miach surpassed their father in power. While Dian Cecht replaced the severed arm of the de Danann king Nuadha with one of silver, she and Miach regenerated the flesh arm to perfect health.
Dian Cecht, jealous because he could not compete with Miach’s surgical skills or Airmid’s powers of regeneration, killed his son and confused the herbs that grew from his grave so that mortal humans would not share in the power and immortality of the Gods. He then buried Miach, and three hundred and sixty-five herbs grew through the grave, corresponding to the number of his joints and sinews. As the grieving Airmed spread her cloak and divided those herbs according to their properties, Dian Cecht mixed the herbs again so that no one knows their proper healing qualities. However, Airmid remembers the powers of the herbs and taught humans their secrets.
In Homer’s Odyssey, an Egyptian woman named Polydamna gives Helen the drug that “banishes all care, sorrow, and ill-humor.” The first recorded female physician in Egyptian history is Merit-Ptah (“Beloved of Ptah”) who lived c. 2700 BCE toward the end of the Early Dynastic Period. Merit-Ptah is not only the first female doctor known by name but the first woman mentioned in the study of science. Her inscription, left by her son, was found on a tomb at Saqqara naming her ‘Chief Physician’ a position which would have also made her a teacher of male and female physicians.
Other powerful women in the medical field were Pesehet (c. 2500 BCE)who is referred to in inscriptions as the “King’s Associate,” which suggests that she was the personal physician of the king and Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) who founded medical schools and encouraged women to pursue medicine.
For women in ancient China, family training was the standard mode of education. They did not hone their skills from masters or have the purpose or goal in mind to set up their own clinics after their apprenticeship. However, in Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 9 CE), there was a woman named Yi Shuo who, as a child, developed a keen interest in herbal medicines. In her teens, Yi Shuo began to gather medicinal herbs in the mountain and pound them into pulp, which she then applied to villagers’ wounds or injuries. Later, Emperor Wu of Han learnt about Yi Shuo and her medical skills. He then recruited her into the palace and made her an imperial doctor.
In the Jin Dynasty (265–420 CE), Bao Gu, the daughter of the Nanhai prefecture chief in Guangdong, was also a noted physician. Her husband was a renowned alchemist at that time, who wrote famous medical works such as the Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency. She was expert in acupuncture and best known for tumor and wart treatment, experimenting with moxibustion treatment using mugwort floss made from red-rooted mugworts found everywhere at the foot of the Yuexiu Mountain. She was honored as “Immortal Lady Bao” by the local. After Bao Gu’s death, the local people built a temple commemorating the great contribution she made to the medical world. The temple is inside the Sanyuan Palace in Guangzhou.
In the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE), there was a famous surgeon named Zhang Xiaoniangzi. Legend has it that when Zhang Xiaoniangzi was young, one day, a roaming physician passed by her house and asked her for some water. She invited him in, offered him a seat and served him some tea. In return, the old physician taught her some secret recipes for operations and ointment making. He also gave her a secret book titled Special Prescriptions for Carbuncles and Abscesses. In time, Zhang Xiaoniangzi became a famous physician herself. She then taught surgical skills to her husband, who also went on to become a famous doctor in the area.
During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE) Confucianism had taken a turn for the conservative and female physicians were not allowed to treat men. However, conservative Confucianism also held that male doctors shouldn’t touch their female patients, so female physicians were able to do hands-on work in ways the men could not.
It was in this period that Tan Yunxian lived. Her grandmother was also a daughter of a female physician. Tan Yunxian’s grandfather married her in order to learn medicine himself. Tan Yunxian’s first real experiences with medicine came from treating her children’s ailments. She would ask her grandmother for advice and together the two of the consulted medical treatises. After her grandmother died, she decided to start practicing medicine more seriously.
With the hope of passing on knowledge about medicine for women, she compiled 31 case studies from her patients into a book called Sayings of a Female Doctor. Knowing that women weren’t allowed to publish books, she asked her son to have printing blocks cut for her and she printed her books independently. Copies of her book still survive today.