Bad History, doctors, gender, internet, midwives, museums and collections

Exhibiting our past: “This Vexed Question”

There’s been a lot of interest online in a temporary exhibition which has recently opened at the Royal College of Physicians in London: “This Vexed Question: 500 years of women in medicine”. I was disturbed by some of the media reports, in particular one in Culture Trip which started with the comment that the RCP was ‘dissecting its past to illuminate contributions made by women to the medical field that have been previously excluded from the history of medicine’. As a historian of medicine it came as news that the contributions of women were apparently still being ‘excluded’.

The original version of the Culture Trip story claimed that the names of women who practised medicine often weren’t mentioned, and illustrated this with an image of a manuscript in which, er, the women are very definitely named. Oops.

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You can see here where my colleague Monica Green helpfully marked up the places where the names of Matilda/Matilla and Solitia appear in this manuscript. In discussion on Twitter, the journalist who wrote that story said she had taken her information from ‘one of the historians’ and those who put the exhibition together then shared the press release in which the names did indeed occur. The RCP Museum tweeted ‘Just to be clear, we’re certainly not blaming the journalist – who has happily offered to correct the error without hesitation. In the course of viewing or being shown around an exhibition subtle misunderstandings can occur’. Reassuringly, the story Culture Trip story has indeed amended; it’s great when social media enables this to happen, and quickly. Applause all round!

Earlier this week I had a chance to see the exhibition for myself. It is beautifully presented, with all sorts of interesting objects. However, I do have reservations still, and these revolve around the period before the last 500 years which has been used to contextualise the period on which the exhibition focuses. My concern is this: the choice has been made to present the myths first, and add in what historians have now shown last.

Here’s an example. Professor Monica Green is the world authority on Trota (not ‘Trotula’ – that’s the term for a group of texts which used to be attributed to one woman). Yet the exhibition calls this woman ‘Trotula’ and tells the story in a way that relegates Monica’s decades of careful scholarship to a little bit of ‘recent historians have suggested’. I’m well aware of the difficulties of compressing information into a caption, having worked on some exhibitions myself, but it’s really not necessary to do this. Culture Trip’s claim that ‘much of the information was hidden in footnotes or one-off references’ obscures the fact that Monica’s findings have been very widely shared online, for example in this 2015 blog post or this interview from 2017. The relevant scholarship isn’t ‘hidden’ but is right there, including on the Wikipedia Trotula page.

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The exhibition includes large print versions of the captions in a separate folder, but here we read instead ‘Trotula is a mysterious figure in the history of women in medicine. She is believed to have been a professor at the famous medical school of Salerno …’ Actually, no mystery any longer – no such woman, and Trota can’t have been a ‘professor’, and she was 12th century not 11th. Plus, as Monica has shown, the one treatise which was by her is empirical, rather than being based on quoting the ancient authorities, so it shows where women were on the fringes of literate medicine. So, Trotula, no. Let’s not foreground the myth when we’ve got excellent scholarship on which to rely (and, let’s say it, scholarship by a woman!).

Also present in the exhibition are two entirely mythical women: Panacea, one of the daughters of Asklepios, who appears with ‘Trotula’ in that parade of women to show that ‘women have been associated with health for thousands of years’ and Agnodice. This is where I get to declare an interest: I’ve been working on the myth of Agnodice for decades and have published an article (1986) and several chapters of a book (2013) on the reception of the story, which I tried to summarise here. It was nice to see one of my favourite examples of this reception in the exhibition: a 17th century advertisement in which a healer calls herself ‘Agnodice or the Woman Physician’. This comes with the statement that ‘Agnodice was the first Greek female doctor, according to legend. She practised as a physician by dressing as a man’. Well… I take the word ‘legend’ but there’s so much more to when the legend was created and how it was used. It’s not even clear that the original (Latin) story was about midwifery, or being a doctor. It has been used in later history by those arguing for women as midwives (because Agnodice was a woman and clients preferred this), for men as midwives (because she was the first woman so that means the role was historically a male one), for women as doctors (assuming she did a lot more than midwifery) and for women’s exclusion from medicine (because she lifts up her clothes to prove her true sex, and that’s scandalous!). And the advertisement includes possible allusions to the legend: for example that this Woman Physician had travelled to ‘foreign parts’, as Agnodice in the story travels to learn medicine from ‘a certain Herophilus’ who practised in Egypt. Another news story on the exhibition picks up the caption’s statement that ‘Calling oneself “physician” was a bold move’, saying ‘Many women publicised their healing prowess at this time, but few were as bold as Agnodice in openly declaring themselves a doctor.’ However, the document shows that the Woman Physician appears to be restricted in her practice mostly to skin conditions and those affecting infants and young children; she is not claiming the same range as a physician of that time and the focus on the surface rather than the interior of the body is more like that of a surgeon, not a physician.

And – here’s a thought I’ve not had before, so going to the exhibition did help me think outside the box – do we know that the person advertising their services really was a woman? Bearing in mind the legendary Agnodice’s use of male clothing to avoid an imaginary law that only men could practise medicine, could the Woman Physician have been a man claiming to be a woman? Would clients knowing the story expect to meet someone in male dress?

If you are in London before January, go along to the RCP and see what you think. How do we acknowledge the breakthroughs of the last few decades in the history of women and medicine in a way that engages the public and avoids repeating appealing but abandoned myths?

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