Hippocrates' Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece

Hippocrates' Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece

Hippocrates' Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece

Hippocrates' Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece


Gynecology in ancient Greece originated in the myth of the first woman Pandora, whose beautiful appearance was seen to cover her dangerous insides. This book explores how Greek healers understood the interior workings of the female body, and how gynecology was based on ideas about women and their bodies found in myth and ritual. Helen King also presents a detailed account of how doctors twisted ancient Greek texts into ways of controlling women's behavior, and how later medicine diagnosed hysteria and recommended clitoridectomy by claiming ancient Greek origins which never existed.

Hippocrates' Woman provides a provocative insight into the origins of gynecology and the influence of the early study and medical texts on later medical practices.


'We, being men, have our patients, who are women, at our mercy'

(Seymour Haden, British Medical Journal 1867:396)

From the nineteenth century until the present day, gynaecology has been the branch of medicine which most strikingly manifests the inequality intrinsic to traditional patient/doctor relationships in Western culture. As many studies have shown, the sick role is feminised, while the doctor embodies what are considered to be the masculine virtues (e.g. Nathanson 1975; Weisensee 1986): in gynaecology, all the patients are women, and the majority of those deciding what counts as disease and how to treat it are men. We may think of gynaecology and obstetrics as separate areas, but they are commonly practised by the same individuals who define gynaecology as the medical speciality devoted to women's reproductive potential, with obstetrics focused on the realisation of that potential. For example, C. Scott Russell, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Sheffield University, defined gynaecology as 'the part of doctoring that is centred on the woman's reproductive organs and functions' (1968:1).

This book concerns the nature, and subsequent historical interpretations, of gynaecology in the earliest period for which we have detailed written accounts: classical Greece of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the period to which many of the texts now known as the Hippocratic corpus can be dated. Simon Byl (1989:55) has estimated that approximately a quarter of the corpus concerns the diseases of women. By investigating Hippocratic gynaecology, this book will explore how claims about precisely which organs and functions are to be implicated in the reproductive process, and decisions on the situations needing medical intervention, should be understood as historical constructs. In studying this material, my purpose throughout remains twofold. First, I want to set the ideas about the female body which are found in ancient Greek gynaecology in the social and cultural context in which they were produced. This will involve seeing Hippocratic medicine as

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