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date: 24 March 2023

women in sciencefree

women in sciencefree

  • Sophia Connell


Women were involved in both practical and theoretical aspects of scientific endeavour in the ancient world. Although the evidence is scant, it is clear that women innovated techniques in textile manufacture, metallurgy, and medical sciences. The most extensive engagement of women in science was in medicine, including obstetrics, gynaecology, pharmacology, and dermatology. The evidence for this often comes from male medical writers. Women were also involved in the manufacture of gold alloys, which interested later alchemists. Maria of Alexandria innovated equipment and techniques while also theorizing about chemical change. Many of the works ascribed to women in antiquity were not written by women. However, they do indicate what sorts of sciences were taken to be the province of women.


  • Gender Studies
  • Science, Technology, and Medicine

Scientific achievements are not the result of individual genius. Science has been a collective endeavour, involving the whole structure of society. The ancient world is no exception to this. Indeed, what is known about the desire for knowledge and control of the physical world indicates that the ways in which Greeks and Romans pursued it were various and diverse, and included the thoughts and activities of many women.

Women scientists can be found on both practical and theoretical ends of the spectrum; women practised and innovated in fields such as medicine, particularly gynaecology, paediatrics, and dermatology, chemistry, particularly metallurgy and distillery, and textile manufacture. Women were most probably involved in producing the theoretical basis of many of these practices. They were also part of many philosophical schools whose more abstract speculations included astronomy, cosmology, harmonics, and other mathematical sciences.

Although it is highly likely that women were involved in science during the Classical period, three difficulties plague the evidence for this. There are very few writings by women, and even fewer by women scientists. In addition, writings that bear a female name may not be by women, since the practice of using female pseudonyms was common. This practice was particularly prominent in fields viewed as “feminine,” such as sexology, gynaecology, and the production of cosmetics. Women themselves may not have written these texts; however, the fact that female names were deemed appropriate indicates that women were very likely to have been involved in these sciences. The final difficulty is that the reporting of female scientists is often at many removes from their time and place (for example Galen, Iamblichus (2), Diogenes (6) Laertius, Themistius, and the Suda), which makes the information we have about them highly suspect.

Although Greek and Roman societies differed, particularly in terms of the freedoms they allowed women, there are some commonalities with respect to women’s involvement in science. One of the earliest technologies created, adapted, and maintained by women was textile production. The earliest records from Linear B tablets make clear that only women did this work, as also archaeology and early art attested.1 Technological advances in the production and use of spindles and looms were the work of women. Respect for these technologies and their attendant knowledge is noted in many philosophical works in antiquity including Aristotle (Gen. An. V 7 788a4–5) and Plato (Plt. 279c–283b, Resp. 616c, 620e).

Another area of intensive activity for female scientists was the knowledge and practices in women’s reproductive health; midwives were always women and were charged with many aspects of women’s health. Aristotle notes: “not only must [the midwife] be able to help over difficult births with her dexterity, but she must also be quick-witted in dealing with contingencies, especially over the tying of the baby’s navel cord,” a procedure he then details (Hist. An. 9(7).10.587a10–11). The skills of midwives, like Socrates‘ own mother, are also noted by Plato and compared to the skills of the philosopher and said to be “highly important work” (Tht. 149a–150b). Later on, Soranus specifies that those fit to be trained as midwives must be literate “in order to be able to comprehend the art through theory” (Gyn. 1.3). For Soranus, a proper midwife would have to consistently apply a general theory of health and disease: “she will not change her methods when the symptoms change, but will give her advice in accordance with the course of the disease; she will be . . . able to state clearly the reason for her measures” (Sor. Gyn. 1.3-4).2

The many women in Roman funerary monuments noted as “physicians” are likely to have been those with knowledge of gynaecology and obstetrics.3 A single monument from the 4th century bce reads: “Phanostrate, a midwife and physician, lies here. She caused pain to none; all lamented her death.”4 Evidence of female medical practitioners in antiquity is fairly common, but extant writings are extremely rare. Writings on female health and disease by men do, however, often mention the practices and knowledge of female medical practitioners. For example, the Hippocratic work On Diseases of Women talks of the methods used by women “in treating themselves and others” (Mul. 1.67).5 There is some debate about how much practical and theoretical knowledge of reproductive medicine in male-authored works was actually produced by women.6 It has been argued that theories of reproduction that posit a female semen released at sexual climax came directly from women. There is no evidence for this, and the thought that female sexual pleasure or freedom was intended is questionable.7 However, it is likely at the very least that women were consulted about their experiences when men formulated reproductive theories. In many contexts, there is evidence that women’s knowledge is referred to in theoretical works on women’s bodies. For example, the views of women on their own physiology and fertility are apparent in Aristotle’s theoretical biology (e.g. Gen. An. 2.7.747a8–23; Hist. An. 9,10.7.638a6). Meanwhile, in Hippocratic gynaecology, the use of feminine participles shows that women were responsible for preparing and applying pessaries and directly carrying out other gynaecological procedures (e.g., Mul. 1.11, 1.44, 2.146, 2.193, 2.195, Nat. Mul. 7, 93).8 Medical knowledge is most likely to have been passed down through a combination of oral tradition and written work, there having been a constant interaction, ensuring the incorporation of women’s own practices and explanations.9

The other area that was part of the repertoire of women practitioners and technical scientists was pharmacology, particularly recipes for ailments that were either the concern of women or deemed feminine, such as cosmetics and aphrodisiacs. Some suggest that recipes, such as those with antiseptic or abortifacient effects, would probably have been effective.10 From the Hellenistic period into the Roman one, fragments of writings attributed to medical women begin to appear. Pliny the Elder (23–79 ce) discusses the remedies of Salpe, including those for sunburn, dog bites, and sore eyes. He also said that Elephantis wrote a sex manual and produced abortifacients (Pliny, HN 28.35–9, 67). Her expertise extended to the formulation of a depilatory cream and an aphrodisiac (HN 28.626).11 Galen (130–210 ce) notes the recipes of Cleopatra, Fabulla, Maia, Samithra, and Xanite, which include perfumed soap, cures for baldness and dandruff, and products to curl and dye hair (De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos 1.3; 12.393, 446). “Cleopatra,” perhaps a pseudonym which recalls the Egyptian queen, also provided complicated charts of relevant weights and measures, indicating an awareness of the importance of calibration in chemical compounds (Pseudo-Galen, De ponderibus et mensuris X).12 There is some dispute over whether works attributed to women physicians were really by women; the names are very likely to be false, but this alone cannot rule out the possibility of female authorship.13

The scant fragments of scientific works attributed to women often focus on practical matters. Another example is the manipulation of precious metals, a practice that came to be known as “alchemy.” The idea that one could turn other substances into gold was, in practice, the production of gold alloys. Maria of Alexandria (1st century ce) was proficient at the practice of coaxing or persuading other metals to become golden. Fragments of her works, preserved in later alchemists, such as Zosimus of Panopolis (c. 300 ce), contain practical explanations and detailed descriptions of apparatus, including ovens and instruments designed for heating and distilling, for instance the so-called kērotakis and tribikos. The most famous of her innovations was a double boiler or bain-marie. Her descriptions of amalgamating copper, zinc, and arsenic are similar to procedures still employed today to produce gold alloys.14

In terms of theory, Maria spoke of the “marriage” of metals:

Take white and red gum, which is the Kybric of the philosophers, and their gold, and marry the gum with the gum, in a true marriage, that is, make it just like running water, and vitrify this divine water, manufactured from two Zaybechs over a fixed body, and liquefy it by the secret of nature in the vessel of philosophy.15

Another alchemist (again called Cleopatra) employed reproductive metaphors to explain how materials transform:

The philosophers contemplate their beautiful work, just as a loving mother does the baby she has borne, and then they seek how they may nourish it, just as the mother does her infant. But for this art they use the Waters instead of milk. The art imitates the infant, since it is formed just as the baby is formed, and when it shall be brought to perfection in all things, behold the mystery that is sealed up inside.16

Cleopatra proceeds to give instructions on how to procure male and female metals and how to combine these into chemical compounds.

Although philosophers in antiquity sometimes downplay craft knowledge in comparison with theoretical knowledge (particularly Plato and Aristotle), the relationship between the two is strong. Female textile workers, pharmacologists, and medical practitioners not only practised but trained and taught others. This tradition of instruction would have included theories and explanations of the basis of their practices. In both medicine and metallurgic practice, fragments with female names attached to them hint at underlying theories. For example, Galen notes that the theory of health as a balance of the humours underlies Cleopatra’s prescriptions (De compositione medicamentorum secundum locos 1.3; 12.381). For the metallurgic practices, a theory of the universality of substances and their interchanging qualities was also apparent, as well as the view that metals are male and female and join in a sort of intercourse to produce the relevant chemical compounds.

Despite the variety of engagement with science found in fragments attributed to female authors, there is no way to prove that they were actually written by women. Even to take an extremely sceptical view that none of them was, there is still something to be learnt about women in ancient science from these pseudonymic practices. Those parts of science deemed feminine were assigned to women. A manual on sex attributed to a woman named Philaenis which parodies more traditional scientific works shows an awareness of women’s lead in the systematic study of love, sex, and procreation.17 Female names later in antiquity were used for sex manuals; this association is already apparent in Plato’s use of a wise woman (sophē) to convey his views on erotic matters (ta erōtika; Symp. 201d). Meanwhile, the feminine knowledge of Socrates’ midwife mother, who could properly match couples to produce the best offspring, is similar to the feminine art of alchemy, which brings together male and female elements and coordinates their proper interaction. These associations indicate the types of knowledge systems women were most likely to be involved in creating and maintaining in antiquity.


  • Hanson, Anne Ellis. “Continuity and Change: Three Case Studies in Hippocratic Gynaecological Therapy and Theory.” In Women’s History and Ancient History. Edited by Sarah B. Pomeroy, 73–110. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant, eds. Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
  • Lindsay, Jack. The Origins of Alchemy in Greco-Roman Egypt. London: Muller, 1970.
  • Patai, Raphael. “Maria the Jewess: Founding Mother of Alchemy.” Ambix 29 (1982): 177–197.
  • Plant, Ian M. Women Writers in Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology. London: Equinox, 2004.
  • Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Temkin, Owen. Soranus: Gynecology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956.
  • Totelin, Laurence M. V. Hippocratic Recipes: Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greece. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.
  • Totelin, Laurence M. V. “The Third Way: Galen, Pseudo-Galen, Metrodora, Cleopatra and the Gynaecological Pharmacology of Byzantium.” In Collecting Recipes: Byzantine and Jewish Pharmacology in Dialogue. Edited by Lennart Lehmhaus and Matteo Martelli, 103–122. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017.


  • 1. Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994); Brendan Burke, “Beyond Penelope: Women and the Role of Textiles in Early Greece,” in Women in Antiquity: Real Women Across the Ancient World, ed. Stephanie Budin and Jean Turfa (London: Routledge, 2016), 635–646.

  • 2. Temkin Soranus, 5–6.

  • 3. Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life, 264–267.

  • 4. Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life, 266–267.

  • 5. Hanson, “Continuity and Change,” 78.

  • 6. Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, Science, Folklore and Ideology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and “Continuity and Change,” 73–110.

  • 7. Aline Rousselle, Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity, trans. Felicia Pheasant (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). For a critique, see Sophia Connell, Aristotle on Female Animals: A Study of the Generation of Animals (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 112–116.

  • 8. For further references, see Totelin, Hippocratic Recipes, 225–258.

  • 9. Hanson, “Continuity and Change,” 78; Totelin Hippocratic Recipes, 225–258; Lloyd Science, 76–79; Lesley A. Dean-Jones, “Autopsia, Historia and What Women Know: The Authority of Women in Hippocratic Gynaecology,” in Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions, ed. Donald G. Bates (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 41–59.

  • 10. Riddle, Eve’s Herbs.

  • 11. Plant, Women Writers, 115–117.

  • 12. For Pseudo-Galen, see Friedrich Otto Hultsch, Griechische und römische Metrologie, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Hanse, 2017), 233–239. See also Totelin, “The Third Way,” 103–122.

  • 13. Holt N. Parker, “Women Doctors in Greece, Rome, and the Byzantium Empire,” in Women Healers and Physicians. Climbing a Long Hill, ed. Lilian R. Furst (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1997), 131–150 and Rebecca Flemming “Women, Writing and Medicine in the Classical World,” Classical Quarterly 5 (2007): 257–279.

  • 14. Marcellin Berthelot, Collection des alchimistes grecs (Paris: George Steinheil, 1888). See also Patai “Maria the Jewess,” 177–197. Plant, Women Writers, 130–134.

  • 15. Plant, Women Writers, 131–132.

  • 16. Lindsay, Origins of Alchemy, 256.

  • 17. See Plant, Women Writers, 46 and Kyriakos Tsantsanoglou, “The Memoirs of a Lady from Samos,” Zeitschrift für Payrologie und Epigraphik 12 (1973): 183–195.