Women practicing medicine in the early church

Image of Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead (1867 - 1941)...

Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, pioneering gynecologist

Women led in early Christendom in the area of medicine. Though the knowledge and practices of that field during those days were primitive, even laughable by today’s standards, late ancient and early medieval medical practitioners of both sexes did do significant good in nursing and basic care. Their work helped set the stage for the development of hospitals and religiously based medical ministries that dominated the field throughout the Middle Ages.

What follows are excerpts from a book I discovered while working on the profile of Christian medical ministry for the Bethel Seminary course (and I hope future book) Resources for Radical Living. The book is Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, M.D.’s A History of Women in Medicine (Haddam, Conn..: Haddam Press, 1938). I have included only a small sampling of the fascinating accounts in the book:

[For more on early Christian medical ministry, see here and here.]

Hurd-Mead’s treatment of gender doesn’t transcend her time. She assumes women have always been more nurturing, altruistic, pitying, and even meticulous in their work than men:

“That the female conscience, and woman’s naturally altruistic instincts for social service, have always been strong, needs no more proof than the history of the women in medicine as we have found it in the ages before Christianity.”

“With their love for detail and their sense of pity for the sick and feeble they turned to the practical side of medicine; they wanted only to prescribe intelligently for their patients, and to nurse them with gentleness and skill.” (71)

But the portraits and accounts Hurd-Mead presents seem well-grounded in the historical data. So in we plunge:

4th-5th century

78           “Fabiola, who died in A.D. 399, was converted to Christianity at the age of twenty; she was married a second time; and became a widow again not long after. In order to expiate the crime of her second marriage and her early frivolity, she followed the teachings of Saint Jerome (A.D. 331-420), her friend and correspondent, and devoted herself to a life of medical charity not only in Rome but in the Holy Land. She was both a physician and a nurse, and . . . she was also . . . a surgeon. . . . Cardinal Wiseman, in 1854 . . . had only praise for those who, like Fabiola, were untiring in their devotion to the sick and needy. He tells us that among [79 ] the wealthy patricians on the Aventine Hill [in Rome] there were ‘three quiet Christians,’ Fabiola, Marcella, and Paula, who were reading Homer in Greek, studying Hebrew, singing hymns and praying, and constantly visiting their patients. Marcdella ultimately became a hermit like Saint Anthony and Saint Jerome, Paula settled in Bethlehem, and Fabiola lived in Italy, and opened hospitals in Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber, and in Rome.”

79           “Saint Jerome gives us the names of fifteen other women of his time who had studied medicine and were devoting themselves to the care of the sick, without fees. Lanciani [Lanciani, Rodolfo, “The Destruction of Ancient Rome,” 1903, p. 58] tells us that . . . Fabiola was converted by Marcella, and that hers was the first hospital to be opened and ‘the best of its kind.’ . . . A later writer says of her, ‘Few physicians had so much moral or intellectual ability as she, so serious without pedantry, simple but not vulgar, quiet but deeply thoughtful.’ [Cardinal Wiseman, Fabiola or the Church of the Catacombs, 1854.] Saint Jerome says that the patients whom she gathered from the gutters were dying in agony, covered with sores, their eyes blinded, limbs mutilated, their whole being reeking with disgusting smells. She herself died in A. D. 399, mourned by thousands.”

79           “Paula, the friend and colleague of Fabiola, was born in A. D. 347, a ‘descendant of Agamemnon.’ She was an expert scholar of Hebrew, and, on becoming a widow, she and her daughter settled in Bethlehem, where they founded a hospital and monastery for the Jews, and served them untiringly. . . . Jerome, writing to their pagan friends in Rome, asks them how they can wear silks, and permit themselves to be carried about by eunuchs, when Paula is wearing sackcloth, trimming lamps, bathing the sick, and giving medical treatments. When Paula died, in A.D. 404, [Jerome] said that those whom Paula had bathed in the blood of the Lamb needed no other baths.”

79-80     “Among the great hospitals of the fourth century we should mention that of Saint Basil of Cappadocia (born A.D. 329), and his sister Macrina, at Caesarea. They had studied medicine in Athens, where they [80] learned ‘all Hippocratic lore.’ Their hospital, built in A.D. 370, was so large that it was ‘like a walled city or the pyramids in size.’ There were separate pavilions for different kinds of diseases, and also houses for physicians and nurses. In this and two other hospitals erected by St. Basil and his sister, there were medical schools where bedside instruction was given students with note-books in their hands. The story of these hospitals . . . reads like a description of one of our modern hospitals. There was the same discipline, the same pleasant relations between doctors and nuses, the white garments, dainty food, clean patients, airy rooms, sanitary conveniences, and the universal oversight of every detail by Macrina, of whom St. Chrysostom wrote, ‘Macrina was a great organizer, an independent thinker, and as well educated as Basil himself.’ A later writer adds, ‘She was next to the Virgin Mary in sanctity.’”

80           “Saint Chrysostom of Antioch, archbishop of Constantinople (A.D. 398 – 407), mentions the names of many ‘manly women’ doing medical work during his lifetime. Among them was Olympia, of whom he says admiringly, ‘She was a good organizer, a widow and a deaconess at the age of twenty, and head of a community of women who were all healing the sick and living the life of charity.’ We gather that it was she who had cured him of stomach trouble. Olympia had such great wealth that the Emperor Theodosius wished to marry her, but she refused his suit and devoted her life to her work. She had forty women under her; they were very ascetic. . . . Olympia seems to have been older than Macrina, but fully as learned and able. The mother of St. Chrysostom, Arethusa, was another ‘manly woman’ of Antioch and Alexandria, very learned. Chrysostom and Arethusa together had the oversight of 347 xenodochia, or nosokomia, or hospitals connected with churches in Constantinople.”

81           “Both Gratian and his forerunner, Constantine, who ruled A.D. 306 – 337, were protectors of all the really capable physicians; they proclaimed them and the clergy tax-free, and gave them liberty to teach what and where they chose.”

82           “During [the] 4th century, Saint Augustine A.D. 354 – 430), and his mother, Saint Monica, were studying medicine together at their home at Tagaste on the coast of northern Africa, the son evolving doctrinal theology, while the mother went about among the poor and sick, using her medicines where they were needed, caring for women in labor, and giving comfort to the dying. Between times mother and son carried on long arguments as to the viability of a fetus, and the location of its soul. They finally decided that a child was viable from the second month of its intra-uterine life, and that it was a legal being from the fourth month, when its sex became differentiated. This decision settled this particular controversy for the Church for centuries.”

84           “In the year 420 the Empress Eudoxia, wife of Theodosius, a well educated woman and a zealous Christian, founded a new hospital in Jerusalem, where she personally tended the sick. She also aided in the re-establishment of two medical schools, one in Syria, and the other in [85] Edessa, in Mesopotamia, east of Van, where the Nestorian Christians had been teaching.”

86           From the 5th c., “the Church obtained more and more temporal power, and women were more and more forced into the background.” That included in the realm of medicine.

6th century

91           In the 6th century, “In England and Ireland . . . medical conditions were not quite so bad as on the Continent” (where, in the author’s opinion, “charlatanism was flourishing,” by which she means primarily the belief in the curative powers of relics, against which she rails at several points in her book). “Bede (674 – 735) tells us in his history that during those years of the fifth century medical studies were not neglected in England. Monks and priests and leeches practiced freely such medicine as they knew. Their anatomy was mainly from Aristotle, their medicines were scarcely better, being those of Dioscorides; but Aristotle and Dioscorides were better than hocus-pocus.”

91           Now, more helpfully: “Shortly after the death of Saint Patrick, Saint Bridget (453 – 525) was at work practicing medicine and midwifery in Ireland. She was said to be the daughter of a ‘druidess,’ to have been converted to Christianity, and to be able to perform miracles of healing. Probably she practiced according to the methods of her age, went about among the poor and the sick at Kildare, and was at least able to convince the rulers that outright quacks should be banished from the country. . . . In later centuries the name of Bridget came to be revered, and many another woman of her name followed her example by opening hospitals and practicing medicine. . . .”

91 – 2    “In Merida, where . . . there has been found a tombstone to a woman doctor, the bishop of Spain, Isodorus Hispalensis (570 – 636) built an immense hospital, containing 580 beds, on the bank of the Tagus, and staffed it with men and women doctors and teachers from the school of the Nestorians at Gondashapur, [92] in Persia.”

93           “. . . in this same century Saint Benedict (480 – 544) and his sister Scholastica were going all over Italy while a plague raged, helping the sick and teaching others how to be of use to suffering mortals. After the epidemic subsided, Benedict gathered together a few kindred spirits, and settled down at Subiaco, in the Sabine hills not very far from Rome, to copy manuscripts for the glory of God; while Scholastica established hospitals and trained nurses to do the work she herself was doing, to bathe the sick, give them medicine and food, and pray with the dying.” [I tried to track down a source for this account and could not. This may be a later legendary accretion.]

95           “Although there were, in the 6th century, almost no women doctors or midwives whose names have been preserved, in Constantinople, Germany, and France there were queens who had studied medicine, and who seemed to find joy in caring for the sick.”

IMAGE: RADEGONDE AND CLOTAIRE, from http://www.bude-orleans.org/lespages/46autres/86/86-Poitiers.html

Note here the mix of piety and compassion in the practice of medicine. This is found everywhere in the history of Christian medical care:

95           “The second of these 6th century medical queens was Radegonde, wife of Clothaire [I find alternate spelling: Clotaire] (497 – 561), the son of Clovis I. She was a princess of Thuringia, an independent kingdom extending from the Danube to the Elbe. Clothaire had fought to reunite his father’s kingdom of Burgundy with those he had newly inherited. He seized Radegonde, the daughter of his enemy, and made her his fifth living wife. She was then a high spirited girl, and this arrangement was entirely against her will. She had, however, her own palace, and here she assembled all the lame, sick, and blind beggars of the region, studied their diseases, and prescribed the treatment for them. Sometimes the learned men of the court were her teachers and consultants, but she soon became very skilful in diagnosis herself and cured all sorts of ailments. In her religious zeal, however, she went to the excess of kissing the feet of her patients, and drying their wounds with her long hair. To her husband she was cold and unfeeling, and this so angered him that he killed her brother. Whereupon, in 542, Radegonde fled to a convent in Poitiers founded by her friend Cesaria. Radegonde herself later became the Abbess at Poitiers, and in 550 she sold all her jewels and built a large hospital, where she cared for the sick and trained two hundred nurses to follow her example. They set bones, dressed wounds, prepared remedies, made bandages, and spent their spare time in copying manuscripts. Many rich women gave Radegonde money for her hospital, while Clothaire himself saw to it that she never was in want for anything. It [96] was said that Radegonde ‘shrank from no disease.’ She died at Poitiers in 587; and wonderful cures were said to have been made at her tomb.” (96)

One response to “Women practicing medicine in the early church

  1. Pingback: Women Practicing Medicine in the Early Church « Biblical Paths

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