Monthly Archives: September 2008

Female Doctors and Surgeons of the Early Church

Not having ever had ambitions to physick other folks, I don’t know much about the history of women as doctors and surgeons in the Greco-Roman world. But one of those chance browses through Google Books has introduced me to some of these ladies.

There’s an awesome legend about Agnodice, the first Athenian woman to become a doctor. She was sick and tired of the way respectable Athenian women, sequestered in their own quarters in the house and seeing only their close kinsmen, didn’t get any medical help except from midwives, who were untrained in the latest medical science. So she “dressed in men’s array” and went to study with a renowned (but old and unobservant) doctor, Hierophilos. Once trained, she began her practice by continuing to dress as a man (because no respectable woman would be out in the streets), and then getting sick women to let her in, after revealing to them the secret of her sex.

Well, of course the jealous Athenian men got kinda suspicious of this ‘guy’ sneaking into all their houses. They caught ‘him’ and were about to string him up, when the women told them he was a she. Which just freaked the Athenian men more. So they dragged her off to court (and only men could serve on the city jury). But all the women of Athens left their seclusion and stormed the court, pointing out that their men were killing them by not letting them get medical treatment. Sanity triumphed, and it became legal and respectable for women to become doctors and surgeons for other women.

(Dang, I don’t care if this is true or not. It’s epic! It needs to be a movie!)

Greek male physicians in Rome were mostly freed slaves; they faced serious social handicaps. Ironically, female Greek physicians seem to have been better received by Roman women. A good number of Jewish women apparently also had medical knowledge, so it wasn’t surprising that when Christianity began, it included women who did doctoring.

St. Theodosia, martyr under Diocletian and mother of St. Procopius the martyr, was apparently said in some sources to be a doctor and surgeon.

But there are other ladies with more historical evidence behind them. St. Fabiola, a convert from the noble family of the Fabians, was a doctor. She also founded the first hospital in Rome and perhaps the Western world (though maybe the Alexandrians were first), making it free to the poor. (So that’s who Cardinal Wiseman wrote his Roman novel about!) She died Dec. 27, 399, and was eulogized by St. Jerome.

“She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want. Need I now recount the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at. She gave food to her patients with her own hand, and moistened the scarce breathing lips of the dying with sips of liquid. I know of many wealthy and devout persons who, unable to overcome their natural repugnance to such sights, perform this work of mercy by the agency of others, giving money instead of personal aid. I do not blame them and am far from construing their weakness of resolution into a want of faith. While however I pardon such squeamishness, I extol to the skies the enthusiastic zeal of a mind that is above it. A great faith makes little of such trifles….”

St. Nicerata/Nicarete was a physician, and was said to have cured St. John Chrysostom of some kind of horrible indigestion or stomach trouble. She was famed for curing many whom other doctors could not (so there’s some hope for Dr. House). As a consecrated virgin she was also known for her humility and unambitiousness, refusing to be made a deaconess or abbess despite St. John Chrysostom’s urgings. When he got exiled by the Empress Eudokia, Nicarete left Constantinople rather than have to acknowledge the new guy, Arsacius. Her date and place of death are not known, but she was pretty old by then. Sozomen seems to have known her personally.

If anybody knows more examples, I’d like to hear them.

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Ven. Louis Martin — Huntin’, Fishin’, and Shootin’ in Normandy

With the beatification of Louis Martin and Marie Zelie Guerin Martin coming up on October 19, and the hunting season in progress in the Northern Hemisphere, it might be a good idea to remind folks that Louis Martin wasn’t just a skilled watchmaker, saintly husband, supporter and working partner in his wife’s small lacemaking business, and father of saints (including St. Therese of Lisieux).

He was also a great lover of nature, of long walks in all weather, of fishing with his children, and a hunter and gun owner. (St. Therese loved going fishing with her father.) Sometimes the fish and small game went home, sometimes to friends, and often to the nearby Carmelite convent.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Louis Martin was proud, as the son and son-in-law of old soldiers, to serve as a volunteer among the ad hoc groups of French sharpshooters and scouts on patrol, doint the dangerous work of watching and reporting German movements. He was 47 and supporting a large family; but he knew his duty and did it.

The more I learn of this many-sided man, the more I like him.

Btw, here’s the story of the miracle attributed to Monsieur and Madame Martin’s intercession, which was required before the beatification. Fittingly, for the parents of so many children (three of whom died untimely), their miracle saved the life of a baby. The same baby you’ll see crawling about, in a picture of the signing of the official miracle decree!

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Igor Movie

Five thumbs up.

“They were having a sale on thumbs.”

This is probably not a movie for everybody. But if you liked Looney Tunes’ mad scientist episodes, this probably won’t be too icky for you. (In fact, one of the characters is apparently Bugs Bunny, if Bugs had had serious long term depression.) It’s obvious that the writers laughed maniacally and often, during the writing of this flick.

Amusingly, many critics objected to the gags not being understood by kids. Again, much like Looney Tunes! (Heck, there are gags I’m just getting _now_. Turner Classics Movies generally reveals these things.) When you were a kid, you just set aside the jokes you didn’t get, and didn’t let it bother you.

So no, it doesn’t bother me that I didn’t get a lot of the specific jokes about actor training. I just recognized that “this is obviously a joke about actor training!” and found it funny on that level, without having to know the specific references.

The story had a heart and mind as well as a funny bone, and the animation was interesting. A fun fairy tale for adults and date movie for nerds  that you can also take your kids to see. (As long as they’re not too tiny.)

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So That’s Why I Never Heard about the Pirates.

St. Vincent de Paul was once kidnapped by Barbary pirates and enslaved, spending two years in Tunis before finally being able to escape.

I was much startled by this factoid when I first ran across it, because nobody had mentioned it in any of the saint books I’d read as a kid. Clearly this exciting story should have been part of even the most slender biography. So why wasn’t it there? This biography page has the answer.

Because some scholars chose to disbelieve his account of these years.

Now, apparently he wrote his captivity story not for publication, but simply to explain why he needed new copies of his documents and why he hadn’t completed certain obligations.

But centuries later, some scholars refused to believe that stuff like that could happened to the man, even though the Barbary pirates were kidnapping and enslaving people all the time in the Mediterranean countries. (And all the way to Ireland and Iceland, a couple times when they had incentive.)

Oh, yeah, and he got a little worked up at some points. Yeah, people never tell true stories of their lives in an artful or emotional way. Oh, no.

Meanwhile, these “made up experiences” seem to have inspired St. Vincent de Paul to work for several years among the French convicts working their sentences out by rowing galleys for the French king.

Yeah, I’m always making up stories and then going to work with sweaty, bitter, violent men who spend all day in stinky bilgewater.

Anyway, go read that biography page. St. Vincent de Paul was one busy guy, and he did a lot of interesting things.


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Old Hymns from the Northern Rio Grande

Your tax dollars at work! Download the mp3s, ’cause your grandparents paid for this song collection already!

“Alabemos y ensalcemos la divinisima sangre” (We praise and exalt the Most Divine Blood)

Entrance of the novios, with a nice wedding hymn included.

Alabados (praises/hymns) from a Penitente sodality, some of them going back the 17th century.

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Yma Sumac

That Peruvian food blog linked to some YouTube videos of music by the great voice of Yma Sumac. She’s still alive, btw, although sadly she’s not in good health (according to her official website). The blog on the site gives her address, and says to send her cards and letters. So go make a diva’s day!

The thing about Yma Sumac is that, clearly, she could have gone into opera and done well. However, it would seem that she didn’t want to. Her explanation is that there are thousands of opera singers but only one Yma Sumac, and that she’d rather stand out.

However, what’s apparently whispered in singing circles is that she wasn’t schooled in the other skills of a singing musician besides singing, and that if she’d taken up opera she would have had to study hard to catch up. She preferred to stay in pop music instead. (Or jazz. Or exotica. Whatever you call what she did.)

Well, that’s neither here nor there. What is a tragedy is that Yma Sumac, who has always claimed to be a self-taught singer, has apparently never taught other singers. Clearly not everyone has the same range; but her control is something that you would think possible to pass on.

Anyway, if you were wondering, the Italians do indeed have a word for it. A soprano with an extremely wide range is “acuto-sfogato”.  🙂  There’s a gentleman named Nicholas Limansky who apparently specializes in studying people like that. (What a fun field to get into!) He’s written a book about her life and technique, which also includes a CD-R of additional material and track-by-track song analysis. It sounds likely to be useful to all singers, especially since Yma Sumac’s vocal flexibility has been accompanied by longevity. (She recorded a very ethereal version of a song from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty at the age of 65. Heck, I’ve never sounded that ethereal or been that flexible on the best day of my vocal life.)

Limansky also runs a biggish website called The Legacy of the Diva.

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The Lord of the Miracles

All about the world’s largest religious procession, its celebration in the US and around the world, all the purple that’s involved, and a miraculous Angolan/Peruvian painting of Christ. Which I had never heard about until this moment. Sheesh, the important stuff I don’t know!

Peruvian festival food for the “Purple Month” of October. Which is a Spring month, down there. But they also have pumpkin fritters (picarones)!

So why is it that the thought of Catholic festivals always makes me feel hungry? 🙂

There’s also a site in Spanish allowing one to “visit” the shrine and “light” a purple vela (Spanish for “watchman” or “vigil candle”).

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