Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The First Female Professor of Medicine

The medical school in Salerno had on its staff the first well-known female physician and professor of medicine. Sadly, we know nothing of her personal life, not even her dates: her existence at Salerno in the 11th or 12th centuries is inferred from the handful of texts she wrote or contributed to. Fortunately, her texts were considered important enough that they were preserved and copied, translated and distributed throughout Europe.

Her name was Trotula (listen here for pronunciation), and we find it on several texts. The best-known is the three works collectively known as La Trotula.
  • Conditions of Women—based on the Latin translation of an Arabic work, with additions of several Latin-based passages that had been around for awhile.
  • Treatments for Women—"a disorganized collection of empirical cures with only a thin theoretical overlay."*
  • Women's Cosmetics—a head-to-toe listing of ways to beautify all aspects of a woman's appearance, with no medicinal applications.
Although there are conditions that make no sense to modern medicine (such as a "wandering womb"), there are also techniques that we would consider very sound, such as using opium on the patient during childbirth (defying church tradition that women should suffer; see Genesis 3:16), and using silk thread to repair tears that occur in childbirth.

Some scholars have attributed these works to a man, perhaps through simple chauvinism, but also because it is believed that the frank addressing of gynecological topics would be too indelicate for a female author of the era. The author of La Trotula, however, self-identifies in the texts as a woman, and the analysis of history is always turning up surprises that challenge modern notions of medieval sensibilities. Also, in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the book of wicked wives read by the Wife's husband Jankyn includes the name "Trotula." However little we may know of her now, it seems she developed a reputation that preserved her name for at least a couple centuries after her prime.

*Quotation from The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine, by Monica Green.

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