Homage to the ‘Wise Women.’

Most medical histories chronicle great achievements by great men: Hippocrates, the father of medicine; Galen, Rome’s leading physician; William Harvey’s explanation of blood circulation; Edward Jenner’s inoculations against smallpox; Louis Pasteur’s Germ Theory; Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin.

The contributions of these men unquestionably changed the world. But from ancient times down to the present day, a relatively small number of male physicians made the great discoveries and ministered to the rich and royal while an enormous number of unsung women herbalists took care of everyone else.

Women healers have gone by many names: midwives, wise women, green women, witches, old wives, and nurses. Most physicians have never taken women’s folk healing very seriously, and scientists often dismiss folk wisdom as “old wive’s tale’s.”

Yet the truth is that medically untrained women, who learn at the feet of other women, still provide most of the world’s primary care. Even in the United States, most people view physicians as the health care choice of last resort. The medical profession promotes the idea that family doctors are our primary providers, but studies show that before people call health professionals, about 90 percent consult a friend or family member. These informal health advisers are overwhelmingly women.

Ancient physicians officially recognized women’s leading role in obstetrics and gynecology more than 2,000 years ago in the Hippocratic Oath, which many graduating medical students still recite today: “I will prescribe no…pessary {contraceptive device} to produce abortion.” Anti-abortion activists have seized on this statement as a condemnation of abortion. In fact, it withdrew male doctors from gynecology and gave the field including abortion, which was widely practiced in the ancient world- to the midwives.

Whatever your personal opinion of abortion, there’s no doubt that women have always sought to control their fertility. After all, until about 150 years ago, childbirth was a leading cause of death among women.

Midwives completely dominated obstetrics and gynecology until the late 19th century. It’s no coincidence that many herbs were traditionally used to calm the womb, trigger menstruation, induce abortion, promote or dry up mother’s milk, and treat infant colic and infectious diarrhea {still a leading cause of infant death in Third World nations}. These were the daily concerns that women patients presented to the women who were their herbal healers.

Sometimes medically unschooled women herbalists introduced university-trained physicians to powerful medicines, such as the heart drug digitalis from foxglove. But by and large, male physicians dismissed female folk healers as ignorant practitioners of medicine that was, at best, inferior, and at worst, worthless.

Nonetheless, women herbalists have played a key and largely undocumented role in medical history. Just as herbs are the forgotten sources of many medicines, the “wise women” represent the forgotten healers whose thousands of years of collective experience taught us how to use herbs safely and effectively.

The wise women were particularly adept at contraception. Around 700 B.C. an oracle sent Greek colonists to the coast of what is now Libya to found a colony, Cyrene. It was located in a dry, desolate, inhospitable place, but the colonists soon discovered a local plant that made them wealthy, silphion { in Latin, silphium}, a species of fennel.

Silphium was a remarkably effective contraceptive. When women ate it, they did not conceive. The herb quickly became the contraceptive of choice around the Mediterranean. Cyrenian coins depicted the plant, often held by a woman. Poets wrote of its power. Unfortunately, over-harvesting eventually wiped it out.