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Women Healers and Physicians

Women Healers and Physicians: Climbing a Long Hill

Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 272
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    Women Healers and Physicians
    Book Description:

    Women have traditionally been expected to tend the sick as part of their domestic duties; yet throughout history they have faced an uphill struggle to be accepted as healers outside the household.

    In this provocative anthology, twelve essays by historians and literary scholars explore the work of women as healers and physicians. The essays range across centuries, nations, and cultures to focus on the ideological and practical obstacles women have faced in the world of medicine. Each examines the situation of women healers in a particular time and place through cases that are emblematic of larger issues and controversies in that period.

    The stories presented here are typical of different but parallel facets of women's history in medicine. The first six concern the controversial relationship between magic and medicine and the perception that women healers can harm or enchant as well as cure. Women frequently were banished to the edges of medical practice because their spiritualism or unorthodoxy was considered a threat to conventional medicine. These chapters focus mainly on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance but also provide continuity to women healers in African American culture of our own time. The second six essays trace women healers' efforts to seek professional standing, first in fifth-century Greece and Rome and later, on a global scale, in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to actual case studies from Germany, Russia, England, and Australia, these essays consider treatments of women doctors in American fiction and in the writings of Virginia Woolf.

    Women Healers and Physicianscomplements existing histories of women in medicine by drawing on varied historical and literary sources, filling gaps in our understanding of women healers and nulling social attitudes about them. Although the contributions differ dramatically, all retain a common focus and create a unique comparative picture of women's struggles to climb the long hill to acceptance in the medical profession.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5854-9
    Subjects: Health Sciences, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    The subtitle of this volumecomes from Sarah Orne Jewett’s novel,A Country Doctor, in which the titular figure, Dr. Leslie, warns his young protégée, Nan Prince, that studying medicine, on which she has set her heart, is like “climbing a long hill.”¹A Country Doctorwas published in 1884, and although no internal date is given for the fictional action, it is evidently contemporaneous, say the early 1880s. At that time the study and practice of medicine was a much steeper and longer climb for women than for men because of the many ideological and practical obstacles that stood...


    • 1 Medieval German Women and the Power of Healing
      (pp. 13-42)

      The role of medieval womenin the healing arts in Western Europe traditionally has been viewed as a modest one, and its characterization has been fraught with myth and assumption.¹ Women healers in works of medieval fiction and noblewomen in the Middle Ages who commissioned medical works often have attracted more attention than the female practitioners themselves.² Whereas women in medieval epics appear in the role of healer with some frequency, extant historical documents offer little evidence of a reflex of this situation in medieval reality. The common perception is that women healers of the Middle Ages either were unschooled...

    • 2 Between Magic and Medicine: Medieval Images of the Woman Healer
      (pp. 43-63)

      In February of 1979,a traveling exhibition opened at the ethnographic museum in Hamburg, Germany, bearing the simple title ofHexen[Witches].¹ The displays covered a variety of topics related to witchcraft, from historical accounts in Early Modern Europe to a reassessment of the traditional image of the witch. The visitor to theHexenexhibition first encountered historical and linguistic analyses of the development of the name witch, from the Old Norsehagazussa² to the contemporary German word,Hexe.Having established an historical framework for considering the problem, the exhibition then branched into more speculative inquiries of witchcraft. One display...

    • 3 Women, Medicine, and the Law in Boccaccio’s Decameron
      (pp. 64-78)

      In her recent study, Lovesickness in the Middle Ages,Mary Frances Wack notes that, whereas women as desiring subjects as well as desired objects can be found at any place and at any time in literary texts, women as clinical subjects were absent from medical academic literature until the late fourteendi century. Wack aptly surmises that “the relative silence of the physicians concerning women follows from, in the first instance, their preoccupation with analyzingamor hereosfrom a masculine perspective. . . . Moreover, men’s lovesickness needed explanation and cure because it made them ‘other.’ Its signs and symptoms feminized...

    • 4 Women Healers and the Power to Disease in Late Medieval Spain
      (pp. 79-92)

      In the early Middle Ages,learned practitioners operated in relative harmony, or at least in harmonious indifference, alongside and in conjunction with empirics, quasi-professional practitioners, and folk healers. Many of these subaltern healers were women who were well-known for their abilities to set bones, remove bladder stones, cure eye diseases, relieve the pains of gout, and treat all kinds of gynecological and obstetric disorders.¹ The major European courts often employed these women healers, allowing them to participate in virtually all aspects of medicine.²

      From the beginning of the twelfth century legal mechanisms were put into place in Europe to evaluate...

    • 5 Where Have You Gone, Margaret Kennix? Seeking the Tradition of Healing Women in English Renaissance Drama
      (pp. 93-113)

      Charles Goodall’searly history of the Royal College of Physicians includes an eery outline of one woman’s struggle to practice medicine in sixteenth century London. A section devoted to recording “the colleges proceedings against Empiricks and unlicensed Practisers” publishes a 1581 exchange of opinions about the medical worthiness of one Margaret Kennix. Kennix, described by the college’s records as “an outlandish, ignorant, sorry woman,” herself never speaks. Presenting her case is Francis Walsingham, secretary of state to Elizabeth I:

      Whereas heretofore by her Majesties commandment upon the pityful complaint of Margaret Kennix I wrote unto Dr. Symondes then President of...

    • 6 The Blues, Healing, and Cultural Representation in Contemporary African-American Women’s Literature
      (pp. 114-128)

      If the bluesis the most prominent and formidable artistic expression of African American culture it is likely that, wherever it plays a significant role, it highlights the issue of cultural representation. In this context, it is important to notice the striking role the blues or jazz play in many of the healing processes portrayed in contemporary African American women’s novels. Images of women healing ill or injured women, or of women healing themselves, have become one of the central tropes in contemporary African American women’s novels. Authors such as Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison...


    • 7 Women Doctors in Greece, Rome, and the Byzantine Empire
      (pp. 131-150)

      Our sources for knowledgeabout women doctors in antiquity are fragmentary: a few passing mentions in classical authors, some scattered references in the medical writers, nearly forty inscriptions.¹ We have no biographies, no details of their training, no specifics of their practice. Yet even from these fragments we can piece together some sort of picture, and the most important feature to emerge is simply that these womenexisted.The history of women as professionals in medicine does not begin in America in 1849 with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), the first woman to earn an M.D. in modern times; nor...

    • 8 They Met in Zürich: Nineteenth-Century German and Russian Women Physicians
      (pp. 151-177)

      Not long after 1877,when the first university-trained German women physicians opened a practice in Berlin, an anonymous complaint charged that they falsely advertised themselves as medical doctors on signs at their clinic. When Franziska Tiburtius went to answer the accusation, she displayed her diploma from the prestigious University of Zürich (Switzerland) to the young state official who, nevertheless, threatened to fine her the conventional three mark penalty for misrepresentation of credentials. The bureaucrat explained that by calling herself “Dr. med.,” Tiburtius implied she had been certified by imperial German authorities to practice medicine; and, of course, women were not...

    • 9 The Making of a Woman Surgeon: How Mary Dixon Jones Made a Name for Herself in Nineteenth-Century Gynecology
      (pp. 178-197)

      In much of my workon the history of women physicians I have tried to explore historically the intersection of gender and professional values. I have rejected essentializing notions regarding women’s behavior as physicians and have argued instead that women doctors—as citizens, as professionals, as clinicians, as participants in politics, and as the shapers of cultural and medical discourse—demonstrate a considerable range of views and behaviors. In spite of their differences, however, I have found that most pioneer women doctors stated publicly, and likely believed, that they belonged in the medical profession by virtue of their natural gifts...

    • 10 Separatist Health: Changing Meanings of Women’s Hospitals in Australia and England, c. 1870-1920
      (pp. 198-220)

      In the Queen’s Jubileeyear of 1897, women doctors in the Australian colony of Victoria together with philanthropic ladies and feminists launched a major fundraising enterprise to establish the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women, an institution to be staffed entirely by women doctors. Women throughout the colony were invited to contribute one shilling towards the proposed hospital, which was to be modelled on the New Hospital for Women in London. In the appeal for this Shilling Fund, the organizers enumerated the reasons why Victorian women should contribute. First, “to provide a place where women would be free to secure the...

    • 11 Halfway Up the Hill: Doctresses in Late Nineteenth-Century American Fiction
      (pp. 221-238)

      Between 1881 and 1891the figure of the “doctress,” as she was then called, makes a prominent appearance in American fiction. During that decade five novels offer divergent portraits of this newcomer on the social scene. In chronological order they areDr. Breen’s Practiceby William Dean Howells (1881),Doctor Zayby Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1882), Sarah Orne Jewett’sA Country Doctor(1884),The Bostoniansby Henry James (1886), and Annie Nathan Meyer’sHelen Brent, M. D.(1891). In four of the five novels the life, work, and status of the doctress is the main theme. Only inThe Bostonians...

    • 12 “Leaving the Private House”: Women Doctors in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Art
      (pp. 239-258)

      The woman physicianwas an important figure in Virginia Woolf’s life and art, although only one novel, The Years (1937), portrays her. Two of Woolf’s own doctors were women: Elinor Rendel, the niece of Lytton Strachey; and Octavia Wilberforce, distantly related to the Stephen family and the last doctor to be consulted by Virginia and Leonard Woolf.¹ During the 1930s, the novelist frequently saw her niece Ann, Adrian Stephen’s daughter, who read natural sciences and physiology at Newnham College, Cambridge; Ann volunteered but was turned down for medical service in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1940 worked as a...

  7. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 259-262)
  8. Index
    (pp. 263-276)