Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department

Women in Early Modern European MEDICINE

Women have played a very integral part in the medical field in the past, and continue to do so in the present. Some of the important roles women play in medicine are wet nurses, mid wives, and healers. These were the main association to the women regarding medicine. These jobs have women connected to the children. These are the positions that laid the groundwork for later physicians. That is why this subject is important to discuss.

Though women were known to be physicians from earliest recorded history, their roles, except in rare instances, did not involve formal leadership positions. Even in the fifteenth century, women who held health and hospital administration roles were forbidden to continue them due to the Council of Trentwhich did not allow it. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that women were allowed formal higher education. However, there seemed to be an interest in the role of women in medicine, and scientific development. This is illustrated through the book of an Italian author, Christine de Pisan, who wrote The City of Women, which described women rulers, inventors, and scientists in the fifteenth century. In the usual circumstances, women served as midwives and herbalists and practiced household medicine. Midwives are commonly mentioned in ancient literature. Some women bear the title on their gravestones, because it was recognized as an honorable profession. Without midwives, many mothers, during and after their pregnancy, would not have gotten the proper care for themselves and their newly born child. Women were also known to practice witchcraft. This was the healing and medicine through spells and potions. Many people believed this form of treatment was beneficial to the sick, but never medically proven. Women were also the ancient healers. They would mix many herbs to find the correct combinations to soothe an ailment. . Women always held the capabilities to be physicians, and practice medicine, but often were not given the chance. The reasons include a repetitively held belief in womenís inadequacy for intellectual pursuits and for leadership in particular.

This subject of study is fascinating. There are so many women who overcame obstacles hard to imagine. They suffered through torment, ridicule, and disbelief to practice medicine for the general good of the community. The information available to research this subject is sparse, but very interesting.

Annotated Bibliography


Barber, Elizabeth. Women's Work: First 20,000 Years. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994.

There was an sufficient amount of information provided in this book, however it was very boring and difficult to follow.  The information was very vague and did not describes anything in depth. I would not recommend using this site to research information.


Bradley, Harriet. Men's Work. Women's Work. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Bradley found it necessary to write a book reflecting social priorities. In the book, the reader can find many interesting details about the process of women at work. There is an entire chapter devoted to women in the medical field. Bradley refers to many other readings, some of which are the Malleus Maleficarum, and Women in English Life. Chapter twelve speaks of witchcraft, and midwifery as the early forms of women in medicine. This book is full of useful information, and is easy to follow and understand.


Burton, Antionette. Consenting the zenana: the mission to make lady doctors for India. Journal of British Studies. 35(July1996): 368-97.

This journal is about the profession of women doctors in Britain  It also speaks of the origins of the London School of Medicine for Women. It stresses that the women in India where women's rights are almost the strictest anywhere, are trapped in a sex-segregated society, and must find a way out. Very useful information is found on this web site and it is good for doing research..


Cadden, Joan. Meaning of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: University Press, 1993.

Cadden also worked on medieval theories of nutrition and growth, so she is no stranger to the ideas and history of medieval times. She worked with many people to make this book a success. This book mainly emphasizes the ideas of womens medicine, but does provide some valuable information on the importance of midwifes. Although this book is fascinating, only a limited amount of information is provided concerning women in medicine.


Cass, Victoria. Female healers in the Ming and the Lodge of Ritual and Ceremony, Journal of American Oriental Society. 106(Jan./March 1986): 233-40.

The main profession for many years for women in medicine was wet nursing and midwifery This journal explains the main reasons for this. It is very informative and useful to use if information is needed. The only draw back of this site is that it speaks of the Oriental Society, instead of the European. This can usually show some bias toward one group of people.


Chinn, Carl. They Worked All Their Lives. New York, N.Y.: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Chinn's book is about the poor women of urban England. The midwife was the one who took care of the pregnant poor working woman.  The book also speaks of the Midwives Act of 1902, which sought to do away with practitioners of midwifery. This book is very important for understanding the need for midwives, and the role they changed throughout the years. This is a very useful book for researching a topic as well as very interesting to read.


Dickstein, Leah M.D. Women Physicians in Leadership Roles Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1986.

This book gives us the history of women in the medical profession. In Dicksteins book, we see the challenges women had to face, and how they overcame them through hard work and persistence. The author is the chairwoman for the American Psychiatric Association. This is a wonderful book, not only for women, but for those interested in the accomplishments women have made in the medical profession.


Hendricks, Ricky. Feminism and maternalism in early hospitals for children. Journal of the West. 32(July 1993): 61-9.

Women have always been in close association with children because they  bear them. In this article, we see the importance of women physicians in the healing of sick young children. The maternal instinct of the woman is sometimes very useful in the therapy of a sick child. This is a good source to use when researching a topic.


Herlihy, David. Opera Muliebria. Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 1990.

Professor Herlihy is a distinguished scholar of medieval Europe. The process of this book moves smoothly and efficiently. Herlihy points out that women mixed medicine and cosmetics, cooked, and wove for wages as well as love. This is a statement that captures the essence of the woman at home, and her strife for success in the working world. Women were seen as healers. This book provides informative material, along with moving stories.


McClain, Carol. Women as Healers. London: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

This book was written by McClain, but had many contributors, mostly physicians. It speaks of the medical anthropology that women were associated with. All of the information is found in the beginning of the book, because the latter part is full of captivating stories. The information that is available is very useful, and interesting.


Riska, Elainne. Women's careers in medicine: developments in the United States and Finland. Scandanavian Studies. 61(Spring/Summer 1989) 185-98.

This journal shows the relation to the medical studies of the United States to those in Finland. We see that the U.S. is setting the stepping stone for the Finish women doctors. The article shows how women are laying the foundation for other women. This is a very interesting article, and easy to follow.


Thayer, Bill. Ancient Medicine from Homer to Vesalus. Roman Sites-Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine. 31 December 1997 http://www.virginia.edu/hs-library/historical/antiqua/stext/htm (18 March 1998).

This site was very informative. It spoke of the ancient woman, Agnodice, who dressed like a man to be able to practice medicine. She was a very good doctor. This site also speaks of the policies involving women in medicine in the ancient world. It is very educational and entertaining.


Whitaker, Elaine E. Reading the Paston Letters Medically. English Language Notes. 31(September 1993): 19-27.

This journal speaks of the attitudes of physicians toward women practicing medicine. I found this article to be very boring and difficult to read. The information was not worth the struggle trying to read it.



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URL: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/emedicine.html
Original Written by Alisa Boyle, 1998 November
Revised by Matt Gingo, 2000 November
Last Revision: 2000 December 6

Copyright © MMV Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Site
Questions, Suggestions, Comments? e-mail bapavlacATkings.edu