Painting Philipp Foltz (1852)
Women are woven deeply into the history of science, stretching back to ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years ago. But because their contributions often go unacknowledged, they fade into obscurity—and the threads of their influence today aren’t as apparent as they ought to be.
As a Wikipedia editor, I have tried to make women’s contributions more apparent by writing entries on figures whose lives haven’t been completely lost, such as Agnodike and Aglaonike, two ancient Greek women, one a brave physician, the other a beguiling astronomer. And fortunately, information about other remarkable women of science has survived, too, thanks in part to pop culture.
Although it wasn’t a big hit, Agora, a 2009 film, spotlighted an important female astronomer and mathematician in late 4th century CE Roman Egypt: Hypatia (portrayed by Rachel Weisz). Hypatia’s written work was lost in the Library of Alexandria’s destruction, but “all our sources agree,” says Maria Dzielska, a scholar of the Roman Empire, “that she was a model of ethical courage, righteousness, veracity, civic devotion, and intellectual prowess.” Due to her brilliance, her father Theon raised Hypatia as Greeks would traditionally raise a son—he taught her his craft, mathematics, and eventually she became the head of a Neo-Platonist school in Alexandria, something only men had previously done. Before she was brutally murdered by a Christian brotherhood, she built medical and astronomical devices as well as an apparatus for distilling water.
Though Hypatia was, in many ways, an exemplary female figure of science and philosophy, she wasn’t a singular figure. Women made strides in the major fields of ancient science.
Medicine & Chemistry
The first recorded woman physician, who was possibly the first woman scientist, was Merit Ptah, an Egyptian living in the 28th century BCE. She was the Chief Physician of the pharaoh’s court during the Second Dynasty, a time when Egyptian women regularly became physicians and midwives, studying at both co-ed and all-women medical schools. Centuries later, during the Fourth Dynasty (26th–24th century BCE), Peseshet, the administrator of Sais, one such medical school for women, oversaw all women physicians in the empire.
In 13th century BCE Babylon, intelligent women in the cradle of civilization were able to hold positions of authority. While overseeing the Royal Palace, a perfumer named Tapputi invented the still, used for purifying substances like alcohol, and perhaps became the world’s first chemist.
Artemisia of Caria II, another woman of science, is mainly remembered for her husband, Mausolus (a recurring theme). She’s known today for ordering the construction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, built between 353-351 BCE, as a memorial to her husband (and brother), who she loved so much that she is said to have, on occasion, mixed his ashes in with her drinks. But she was also a botanist and medical researcher. She discovered the myriad uses of the genus Artemisia (wormwoods), which is named after her. The herb can stimulate pelvic and uterine blood flow, induce abortion, expel retained placentas, and prevent miscarriage. (In a happy connection, Tu Youyou was co-awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discovery of a malaria treatment, artemisinin, derived from one species of wormwood.)
Probably the most famous ancient Greek woman physician was Agnodike, a possible contemporary of Artemisia’s. In the 4th century BCE, she pretended to be a man to study with Herophilus, the first anatomist. She was motivated to study because of women who died unnecessarily in childbirth, or of reproductive diseases because they did not want to see a male physician. Apparently out of jealousy, the men of Athens decried her because they thought she was seducing women, but they discovered her true identity, and she was put on trial for practicing medicine illegally. Agnodike could have been sentenced to death were it not for the women of Athens, who protested at her trial. As a result, a new law was passed allowing women to be physicians.
Metrodora, who lived sometime during the 3rd-5th century CE, became the first woman medical scholar by authoring a treatise on, among other topics, gynecology, called On the Diseases and Cures of Women . It contained herbal remedies found nowhere else in ancient Greek writing, discussed the causes of various types of vaginal discharge, and went on to be widely referenced by succeeding practitioners in ancient Greece and Rome.
Astronomy & Mathematics
Egypt wasn’t the only place in antiquity where women flourished in the sciences. In the 23rd century BCE, Akkadian astronomer-priestess En Hedu-Anna perhaps became the world’s first known woman astronomer, since her position required her to make detailed astronomical calculations and observations—no small feat, given that writing was only a few centuries old. She served Inanna, goddess of the moon, and is best known for her sweeping sacred poetry that survives to this day. After her death, she was elevated to demigoddess status and worshiped by the local Sumerian citizenry. In 2015, a crater on Mercury was named after her.
Another woman undeservedly overshadowed by her famous male paramour was Theano, typically remembered as Pythagoras’s wife. She was an accomplished astronomer and mathematician who lead the Pythagoreans after her husband died. Like Theano, Aglaonike—a 1st or 2nd century CE Greek astronomer—was intellectually gifted. It was thought that, since she could predict the times of lunar eclipses, she was capable of making the moon disappear on demand. She was not shy about her abilities of observation and calculation and was vilified for bragging. The women astronomers who associated themselves with Aglaonike during her life and after her death were called the “witches of Thessaly” because, as Plutarch wrote, Aglaonike “imposed upon the women, and made them all believe that she was drawing down the moon.”
By the 5th century BCE, ancient Greek civilization was flourishing and, contrary to modern impressions, women were prominent participants in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Take the philosopher Aspasia of Miletus, a quasi-contemporary of Theano. Her teachings are suggested to have influenced Socrates and, as a hetaira (a high-class courtesan) she advocated for Greek women in society. Although she is mostly remembered today as being Pericles’ lover and partner, few recall that it was she who authored his famous funeral oration. (Scholars have remarked on how structurally and thematically similar it is to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.)
Since hetairae were meant to be well educated, in order to provide not only sexual companionship but also intellectual stimulation, Aspasia’s authorship of one of antiquity’s most cherished speeches shouldn’t, frankly, be that surprising.
There must have been far more women contributors to the architecture of science and civilization than we know of today. The ravages of time—and humanity—have unfortunately left us with mere scraps of their biographies and treatises, or references to ones lost. If I had a time machine, I’d volunteer in an instant to secure women’s vanished intellectual achievements—and I’d bet that the world would be a vastly different place if these ancient women got their due.