The role of women in ancient times varies from culture to culture. In some, they rode into battle beside the men. In others, they were expected to remain at home where they would bear their husbands children and keep the household in order. One culture where women were permitted and even encouraged to work outside the home was that of Ancient Egypt.
In Ancient Egypt, there were several examples of women not only working as doctors, but, in some cases, overseeing the work of other physicians. The literary works that they authored on the topic of medicine were, in some cases, being read and studied hundreds, if not thousands of years later.
Of the female doctors who lived and worked in Ancient Egypt, perhaps the best known was Merit Ptah. She lived around 2700 BCE and was believed by many to be the first named female physician in history. She lived and practiced around the same time as Imhotep, who was well known as a healer, architect and builder of the Pyramid of Djoser. Although she was one of the best known female doctors, she was not the first woman to have practiced medicine in Ancient Egypt, and unlike another female doctor, her writings were not studied for thousands of years. She gave birth to a son who later became a High Priest and who gave her the title of “Chief Physician”.
Peseshet was a female physician who lived during the Fourth Dynasty (2613 BCE to 2494 BCE). Some historical records suggest that she may have been a physician and others that she may have been trained and employed as a midwife. Regardless of her training, she was given the title of “lady overseer of the female physicians”. This title is important because it shows that not only were a number of women working as doctors, but that they were also administrated and supervised by a woman as well. It was believed that she may have begun her medical training at a school for midwives that was located at Sais although it is unknown just how far her medical training progressed.
A third woman who was well known as a doctor in Ancient Egypt was Cleopatra (not to be confused with the former Queen and member of the Ptolemy dynasty). In Ancient Egypt, doctors tended to specialize in the treatment of certain diseases or parts of the body. Cleopatra was a doctor who worked in the twin fields of gynecology and obstetrics. In addition to working in the field, she also wrote extensively about her medical specialty and women’s health in general. Her works continued to be the focus of study for more than a thousand years.
Egyptian medicine was a unique mixture of magic and scientific fact. They were able to treat many diseases and injuries much more successfully than doctors could thousands of years later. They showed a need for cleanliness and a knowledge of anatomy and physiology that was very sophisticated for the time and yet, still believed in the need for divine blessings and magic charms.