Metrodora: The True Mother of Gynecology

As we at LILAS work toward womxn's health and wellness, we also honor the fundamental roles women have played in health history at-large. Today, we’d like to highlight who could be called the mother of gynecology, Metrodora. Though not much is known about her life outside of her work, Metrodora was a Greek physician of Egyptian origin born sometime between 200 A.D.. and 400 A.D. Experts assert that she was renowned for her knowledge and practice as a gynecologist, midwife, and scholar throughout all of Greece. In fact, since the Greek word “metro” means “womb” and  “dora” means “gift”, Metrodora truly lived up to her name through her gift in addressing women’s needs. Metrodora wrote a comprehensive medical text called On the Diseases and Cures of Women that outlines some of the gynecological methods still in use today. In fact, On the Diseases and Care of Women is believed to be the oldest surviving medical works written by a woman. The text itself is two volumes long with 63 chapters. Furthermore, it’s one of the first known medical texts to have alphabetical headings

Metrodora pioneered the use of the speculum to examine the vaginal canal and the use of what we would now consider the tampon. She is also known for requesting surgical intervention in the treatment of “malignant ulcers” in the ovaries and uterus, which is what cancer was referred to at the time. She even initiated much needed dialogue and consideration of sexual abuse and assault, providing guidelines on how to look for physical indications. Some of Metrodora’s writings are still preserved in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy.

Though the details of her life are shrouded in mystery, Metrodora should be celebrated as the true parent of gynecology. Interestingly enough, there is a longstanding rumor that Metrodora was just an alias for Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, herself.  Sometimes Metrodora is called Cleopatra Metrodora in literature because of this legend, but there's no clear evidence that they were the same person. To be clear, Metrodora, whoever she may be, has done more than enough in her own right to be acknowledged and lauded for her revolutionary work in women’s health. In many history books today, J. Marion Sims is deemed the “father of modern gynecology” despite the fact that  he exploited Black enslaved women in his experiments. Metrodora is clearly much more worthy of recognition in the narrative of women’s health advancement. Again, Metrodora’s name literally means “womb gift” and she gave us the gift of helping us know more about our wombs and our bodies overall. The very fact that she hasn't received widespread recognition reiterates the sexism that existed then and even now in medicine. Despite having female healthcare pioneers so long ago, we still have lots of work to do to create gender equity in healthcare. May Metrodora, along with many others, finally take the place in health history she deserves.  And may today's healthcare system also mirror this intentional centering of women’s needs and contributions. 

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