Friday, 22 February 2013

History of Women in Science - Jakoba Felicie

This post has been featured by Maggie Koerth-Baker (NYTmag columnist & science editor at BoingBoing)

It is rather complicated to find accurate historical accounts in the internet. While searching for information on Jakoba Felicie, I noticed that the majority of articles about her where obtained with a well known combination of keys [CTRL + C inevitably followed by CTRL + V].
Only after digging deeper did I find an article by Monica Green from the Arizona State University
This blog post is derived mainly from her work and from the translations of the Latin trial record by McLaughlin and Ross.

Although often referred to as the woman who disguised herself as a man to practice gynaecology and midwifery, Jakoba (or Jacqueline) Felicie was most likely a general practitioner and never pretended to be a man.

In November 1322 she and another five medical practitioners (two men, three women) were excommunicated and fined sixty Parisian livres. The trial records are exceptionally detailed and show that she has never been accused of causing harm to her patients. Eight witnesses testified that she had cured them after university-trained (male) physicians have given up. And that is where she had touched a sore spot, it seems. Jakoba’s trial is not the simple story about suppression of female practitioners, but rather demonstrates the increasing power and influence of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris.

In the later Middle Ages, the professionalization of medicine took on new dimensions. Jakoba’s case might mark a turning point in the history of medicine, where university-trained physicians (all male) would be the only ones allowed to practice medicine. Until then, women legally worked as midwifes and “unlearned” healers, utilizing the power of medical plants and their own observations. It appears the exclusively male medical establishment just realized that women can be categorically prohibited from this profession by (A) not allowing them to enrol at universities, and (B) forbidding them to practice the traditional healing they have done for millennia.

However, Jakoba (or her lawyer) might have suspected this, as she claims that: "it is better and more becoming that a woman clever and expert in the art should visit a sick woman, and should see and look into the secrets of nature and her private parts, than a man, to whom it is not permitted to see and investigate the aforesaid, nor to feel the hands, breasts, belly, and feet, etc., of women."

There was a flaw in her argument, though: Her patients were men and women.

What happened to Jakoba after the trail is unknown.

[this is a blog post series that is also available in German on my science blog for the Leipzig Daily Newspaper

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