Glimmers of the Past: Remarkable Women from before the 6th Century AD

Historically, many women made great contributions in medicine, natural sciences, and philosophy, and we would like to remember their work.

Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all. - Hypatia

Hypatia of Alexander was a philosopher and mathematician who lived from approximately 355-415 AD. She was a scholar and a teacher as well as a leading astronomer, a claim that few women of the time could make. Hypatia is among the numerous women who made an impact on research and scientific advancement in ancient times. While there are too many of these women to go into detail, for this Women’s History Month, we remember a few who are memorable in various fields.

Women in Medicine

Medicine has long been an evolving field, with records of women being involved in this field since 2700 BC in Egypt. Merit Ptah is the first woman in medicine whose name is known, possible the first in all of science. While Aspasia the Physician from the 1st century AD is the first confirmed woman physician from Greece, there are records of two other women practitioners in Greece, Agamede and Agnodice, dating from the 12th century BC and the 4th century BC, respectively, but there is some debate whether these women and their recorded lives are in fact truth or myth. Nonetheless, women from ancient times made significant impacts on medicine, often focusing on women’s health and pregnancy care.

Women in Natural Sciences

Studies of the natural world, from astronomy to botany, also attracted women’s attention in ancient times. Besides Hypatia, Aglaonike from Greece (2nd century BC) was also a well-known astronomer who, it is indicated, could predict lunar eclipses. Artemisia II of Caria was a ruler and botanist from the 4th century BC, after whom the plant genus Artemisia was named. Tapputi, considered to be the first chemist, utilized natural products to produce perfume in Mesopotamia in approximately 1200 BC, while Miriam (or Mary) the Alchemist lived in the 1st or 2nd century AD in Alexandria and invented an early distillation apparatus.

Women in Philosophy

Philosophy was a very dynamic field in ancient times, with many notable women philosophers from Greece, such as Arete of Cyrene, Sosipatra, and Lastheneia of Mantinea. The Vedic period of India, from 1500-500 BC, also included woman philosophers who contributed to the field, such as Gargi Vachaknavi and Sulabha Maitreyi. While some of these women are known only by name, their works having long been lost to history, the fact that their names are remembered indicate the important contributions they made during their lifetimes.

These small glimpses of women from ancient times show the broad range and depth of women’s impact from a time when many of their achievements were not recorded or whose records have since been lost. While their writings and research may no longer exist, we still remember them for their great works.

Sources:

  • M.B. Ogilvie, “Women in Science: Antiquity through Nineteenth Century A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography”, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1990
  • M. Alic, “Hypatia’s Heritage: A history of women in science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century”, Boston, Beacon Press, 1986
  • B. Suguna, “Women’s Movement”, New Delhi, Discovery House Publishing, 2009
  • P. Bicknell, J. Brit. Astron. Assoc., vol. 93, no. 4, pp. 160-163, 1983

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