Women’s History Month: Names We All Need to Know


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In honor of Women’s history month, I decided to write about the female pioneers in the sciences.  These women blazed the trail that I and so many like me, would eventually follow.  We have all walked in the mighty footsteps left by these amazing women; women who showed us all what could be achieved with equal measures of courage and intellect.  The decision to write this blog was easy, what wasn’t easy was deciding which women to write about!

Many of these women were famous in their own time, many were awarded the Nobel prize, and even more were immortalized when subsequent generations of scientists named stars, equations and technologies after them.  So instead of highlighting those very deserving women, I decided to highlight some whose names may not be as universally recognizable.

My blog will tell you a little about a few of the earliest female pioneers in a few of our fields.  Women who had to pretend to be men to be heard, women who were not culturally permitted to acquire education, women whose birth fell on our evolutionary timeline somewhere between antiquity and the middle ages.  Women who were clearly born with a level of natural curiosity that led them to discoveries that would change our perception of the natural world and our place in it and deepen our collective understandings of the relationships between the unimaginably large and the imperceptibly small.

At some point in the future you may come across a full length book on this topic with my name on the cover, and bio notes that begin with…. “The author spent two decades chronicling this information in an effort to include every female pioneer in the sciences…” – but until then, here is my list of names that you should know when you celebrate Women’s History Month.


What was science was like in ancient times?

  • Women had access to knowledge due to the folk cultures that preserved images of “wise women” as healers that utilized “natural magic”
  • It was all about Astronomy and Medicine
  • It was all happening in Greece and Egypt
  • Medicine was an established discipline in Egypt prior to 3000 BC, and women were educated as both doctors and surgeons. These women would extract tumors, set bones with splints, and perform Caesarean sections. They also specialized in gynecology; they diagnosed pregnancy, tested for sterility and treated dysmenorrhea.
  • Everyone that was anyone had a connection to either Socrates, Plato or Hippocrates
  • The field of Chemistry was dominated by women because its practical application was limited to perfumes and cosmetics


2700 BC

There is always a first: Merit Ptah

Merit Ptah was the first woman known by name in the history of science.  Imagine that – the first female name in the nearly 6000 year history of science.  Merit Ptah lived sometime around 2700 BC and like so many of these women advancing science in Ancient times was a physician, and was at least for a time, from Egypt.

A portrait of Merit Ptah lies in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and was described in ancient texts as Egypt’s “chief physician”.


4th Century BC

Medicine: Agnodice

Medicine Agnodice

The first female gynecologist, Agnodice was educated at the University of Alexandria, and practiced in Athens.  This was the time of Hippocrates, a time when women were allowed to study and practice gynecology, obstetrics, healing, and midwifery, although many, including Agnodice, were forced to pretend to be men in order to attract patients.

Shortly after the death of Hippocrates, the ruling class decided to restrict women in this field and declared the practice of these sciences by any women, a capital offense.

Already practicing, Agnodice revealed her gender to patients in protest.  She was arrested and publically tried.  However, the prosecution failed when her many patients arrived at her trial to praise her skill as a physician.  The female patients condemned the attempt to have Agnocide executed, and possibly because many of them were the wives of Senators, the Athenian Senate rescinded the law and allowed the women of the city again to be treated by female physicians.


 2nd Century BC

Astronomy: Aglaonike


Believed to be the first female astronomer, Algaonike hailed from Greece.

In her lifetime she became well known for her calculations that discovered and predicted lunar eclipses.  Because the fixed orbital pattern of planetary objects was not a previously known fact, many of her contemporaries believed the moon was obeying her command to disappear, earning her a reputation of sorcery.  A reputation that stayed with her centuries after her death.


Chemistry and Alchemy: Miriam the Jewess

chemistry Miriam

Miriam’s written works are the oldest writings to have survived into modern times.  The fact that her work was preserved testifies to her fame in life.  She was contemporaneously famous for work in chemistry and alchemy.  The detail and clarity of her work, including the detailed recording of physical measurements, distinguished her from the alchemists of her time.  Miriam eventually founded a school of alchemy, and threw off the cloak of secrecy that existed around alchemy before that time.

In addition to being the first woman known to be an alchemist, Miriam also conducted experiments with distillation and was the first to identify and chemically describe the process we know today as the oxidation of metals.  Miriam is also credited with inventing measuring and testing devices and processes, including the device we know today as the “water bath”.  “Mary’s black”, a black sulfide coating on metal which is produced using the process of kerotakis, was discovered/invented by and named for Miriam.



4th and 5th Century AD

Astronomy and Mathematics: Hypatia

Astronomy Hypatia

Hypatia was an accomplished astronomer, mathematician, inventor, and philosopher.  This period of time on our timeline was a time of great social and political change, and before the end, she would find herself victim to the violence that so often accompanies this type of change.

However, during her lifetime she was regarded in her fields with respect.   Hypatia was head of a renowned Platonist school in Alexandria, well known in the academic world for encouraging the study of astronomy, logic and mathematics.  Her achievements would make her the earliest known female in these fields.  She wrote many books on advanced and relational mathematics and edited books for leading scholars in philosophy and astronomy.

Hypatia’s work with astronomy was ground breaking.  She was the first to discover the true orbital relationship of the planets within a system, and to understand that through the movement of the planets, time could be measured and that the absence of light in the observable night sky indicated the the presence of another planet.  This view of the universe was seen as heretical at the time and eventually embroiled her in a contemporary political/religious struggle which resulted in her brutal murder.


What did science look like in the Middle Ages?

  • After the dissolution of the power of the ancient Mediterranean world, the study of the sciences did not re-emerge for a very long time, until the 12th Century when Italy and Spain became the centers for scientific learning
  • Along with the “rise of learning”, so rose the first university systems, beginning with the medical schools of Italy, that for a time, allowed female students and instructors
  • However, then politics changed with the spread of male dominated religious power centers, and the education of women became more and more controversial
  • After that, women were constrained politically, socially, economically and had little opportunity for achievement  – these are referred to as the 1300 lost years for women
  • Illustrations and portraits of women were no longer frequently created, and documentation regarding them, was often limited to court records if they were prosecuted for crimes
  • Except in Medicine – where women all over Europe remained a part of the landscape, even though they were denied university training and were jailed for practicing without the license that came with a university degree


11th Century AD

Gynecology, Obstetrics, Dermatology, Nuero and Diagnostic Medicine: Trotula of Solerno

It is thought that Trotula of Solerno worked in the 11th Century and was the wife of Johannes Plataerius, a physician working in Italy. It is most likely through him that she was provided the opportunity to teach and practice medicine. With the medical field entirely dominated by men during the Middle Ages, it is not surprising that little headway was made in the fields of gynecology or obstetrics. Trotula developed Passionibus which stressed practice over theory and prevention over cure. It avoided many common drastic medieval remedies, recommending instead such modern-sounding advice as proper rest, exercise and nutrition.

Recognizing the need for specialized medicine in these areas, Trotula became a leading Italian physician in not only gynecology and obstetrics, but also in dermatology and epilepsy. Already having taken a great step by becoming a practicing physician, Trotula broke tradition by revolutionizing the way diseases were diagnosed.  Tortula revolutionized diagnostic medicine by introducing the simple questioning and observation of patients.

Unlike most of the few female physicians of this era, Trotula was highly respected in her own time, especially by her students in medical school, and was considered their most knowledgeable instructor.  Trotula also contributed a substantial body of influential written work, including Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women), intended to enlighten the male -dominated medical world with regard to the female body and women’s health issue.

The Diseases of Women is comprised of sixty-three chapters that outlined menstruation, general diseases and treatments, and pregnancy from conception to childbirth. Her suggestion that opiates be provided to women during childbirth was courageous as it directly defied the teachings of the religious leaders of the day.  Her claim that the physiological defects of both women and men could affect conception was also dangerous during the Middle Ages, as it implied that men could be responsible for infertility.


13th Century AD
Medicine: Jacobina Félicie

Jacobina Félicie was reportedly from Florence in Italy, and was a practicing physician in Paris.  She belonged to the minority of licensed female physicians of her time; in 1292, there were only 8 female physicians licensed to practice in the whole of France.  In 1322, however, due to her widely renowned successes curing patients who had been declared untreatable by male physicians, Jacobina Félicie was charged and tried for unlawful practice.

During the trial many testimonials to her skills were offered, including claims that Félicie was a better physician and surgeon than any of the male physicians in Paris.  Despite or because of this type of testimony, the court eventually ruled that it was obvious that men understood medicine better than women simply because they were men.

As a result of this ruling, Félicie was banned from practicing medicine and threatened with excommunication if she ever did so again. This decision is considered to have directly caused women to be banned from the study and practice of medicine in France until the late 19th century.


14th Century AD

Pathology: Alessandra Giliani

1 Pathology Alessandra

Alessandra Giliani is another first on our timeline.  Although her life was short, she was the first woman to be recorded history to have practiced pathology.  Giliani is believed to have been born in 1307, in San Giovanni in Persiceto, in the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna.  She is believed to have lived only 19 years, dying of a wound.  During her short life, she worked as the surgical assistant to Mondino de’ Liuzzi, a renowned professor at the medical school of the University of Bologna, he was credited with being the father of modern anatomy.  Giliani was celebrated in her time own by de’ Liuzzi, referring to her as a brilliant prosector (preparer of corpses for anatomical dissection).

Through his documents we know that Giliani carried out anatomical investigations, developing a method of draining the blood from a corpse and replacing it with a hardening colored dye, adding to our understanding of the coronary-pulmonary circulatory system.


In Memoriam, with our deepest Gratitude and Respect

Throughout history, women have had a significant impact on mathematics, science, and medicine.  Despite the political, religious and social constraints of their time, these women sought the unattainable and questioned the unquestionable, often paying with their livelihoods or their lives.  These remarkable trailblazers shattered myths, advanced our understanding of the universe, our own bodies and everything in between.

These women ushered in the age of enlightenment with sheer will, courage and determination.

Coda Corp USA, a company of engineers, envisioned, founded and steered by women, is proud to take this opportunity to celebrate Women’s History Month by expressing our deep gratitude to these women.

For the roles they played in ensuring education, opportunity and everlasting inspiration, we say thank you.

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