CHAPTER TWO

WOMEN OF MEDICINE

You’ve probably been taught that women have “healing hands” and are “natural nurturers,” but the fact is that some women are just naturally good at doctoring—not because of any sexist generalization, but because they are smart as all get-out and work hard for their patients. Throughout the history of medicine, ladies have consistently preferred being treated by other ladies, be it because of body shame (a whole ’nother issue entirely), fear, discomfort, or just a desire to feel that the person talking to you about your problems can truly understand what you’re going through. Sadly, for most of time, getting a lady doctor was impossible; strict laws forbade women from practicing medicine, mostly because men were afraid they’d be too good at it (and they were). But a few incredible pioneers bucked the system to fight for their patients, and their courage and accomplishments deserve to be known.

Jacqueline Felice de Almania

“I shall heal you, God willing,

if you have faith in me.”

Of you like women who take a serious stand for what’s right, you will love Jacqueline Felice de Almania. Back in the fourteenth century (aka the late Middle Ages, a time when everyone had weirdly flat faces, if you believe the artwork), Paris flourished as a center of learning…as long as you were a Christian man. For Jewish women like Jacqueline (or Jacoba, the Latinized form of her name), education was hard to come by, and practical work like doctoring was forbidden. But that didn’t stop our gal from standing up for herself, even in court.

We don’t know much about Jacqueline’s early life, but from the Austrian preacher and scholar Father Heinrich Denifle’s four-volume Cartulary of the University of Paris (an 1889 transcription of documents concerning the university in the Middle Ages), we do know that she was a Jewish gal born in Florence sometime in the 1290s. Given the fancy honorary title domina in the writings of others (and given the extra-fancy title nobilis mulier domina Jacoba, or “noble woman and mistress,” in her own words), we also know that she was, indeed, fancy: an upper-class lady who, by the 1320s, had picked up an impressive knowledge of medicine and made her way to Paris. There she became one of only a few female physicians (technically called empirics, because they weren’t allowed to be called doctors) then practicing in Paris. How few? Well, in 1292 they numbered only eight. Not exactly a woman-dominated industry.

Despite being rare, these women doctors provided essential care. Empirics were known mostly for assisting with reproductive health (think midwifery). But plenty of upper-class women (like Jacqueline) learned a wide spectrum of medical skills, making them the kind of all-purpose doctor that today we’d call a general practitioner. Unfortunately for Jacqueline and her patients, having successful women doctors was not something that governments historically wanted or allowed. Not when there was regulating to do—and definitely not when there was money to be made. The dudes in power needed some kind of strategy to prevent anyone who wasn’t a rich white Christian guy from treating patients, especially the kind of rich, upper-class patients who could pay hecka cash.

And so in 1271 the medical facility of the University of Paris invoked an obscure 200-year-old statute that made it illegal for anyone to practice medicine without a specially obtained church license. Naturally, this license could be obtained only by completing courses at the university—courses that women and Jewish people weren’t allowed to take. Even worse, the required courses weren’t the type of hands-on, practical, head-bone-connected-to-neck-bone stuff a doctor should probably know; instead, they were theoretical and philosophical classes that focused on the writings of Aristotle, Hippocrates, Plato, and Galen, a Roman “doctor” who was all about examining men’s “temperaments.” This meant that the licensed doctors in Paris were not terribly effective (unless the effect you wanted was a doctor who slaps leeches on your body and leaves you to die while shrugging a lot and citing Hippocrates). These trained “physicians” looked down on surgeons and apothecaries—the doctors who, although not licensed, could in fact save your life by cutting horrible stuff out of you or prescribing medicine. Worst of all: anyone found practicing without a license (and actually saving lives) could be reported and shut down by no less than the pope for, as the law put it, endangering the public by a lack of knowledge.

Jacqueline wasn’t about to let a silly thing like near-universal condemnation keep her from healing people (she ain’t afraid of no pope!), and she continued to treat patients as she always had. Not surprisingly, her persistence did not go over so well with the old boys’ medicine club, especially since—as a well-educated, upper-class woman—Jacqueline was “stealing” away their wealthier patients. (Because, you know, the most important part of medical care is making money.) So on August 11, 1322, a group of physicians dragged Jacqueline to court on the charge of illegal doctoring—or, as the official court documents stated, because she “visited many sick people suffering from serious illness…examining their urine both jointly and separately, taking their pulse, and feeling, palpating and holding their bodies and limbs.” In addition, she made “an agreement with them to cure them” and distributed “syrups to drink, pain relievers, laxatives and digestives, both liquid and nonliquid, as well as aromatic, and other potions.” (Which sounds an awful lot like exactly what a doctor is supposed to do. How dare she!)

Luckily, Jacqueline had top-notch legal counsel. Her attorney brought some of her recovered patients to the stand, including Joana Bilbaut, whose “feverish illness,” despite the attention of “very many physicians,” had made her so sick that “she could not speak, and the aforesaid physicians consigned her to death.” Along came Dr. Jacqueline with her pulse-palpating and her syrup-giving and ta-da, Joana was good as new. In fact, nearly all of the eight patients who testified said that they had been told by the city’s licensed physicians that they were as good as dead. Jacqueline’s attorney made sure to tell the court that she had “successfully cared for many sick people whom master physicians had failed to cure.” Not only that, she also refused payment!

Jacqueline spoke up for herself, too. She argued that the centuries-old law being levied against her was to prevent “idiots and fatuous ignorant” people from practicing medicine—and therefore this fatuous and ignorant law should not apply to her. She went on: “It is better and more suitable and proper that a woman wise and experienced in the art should visit sick women,” for “it used to be that a woman allowed herself to die, rather than reveal her secret illnesses to a man…because of the shame which she would have suffered in revealing them.” (Of course, we know that Jacqueline treated both men and women, so this was just a clever defense tactic.)

Unfortunately, “saying things that matter” tends not to persuade bigots with power; the judge dismissed her claims and those of the witnesses, saying that Jacqueline’s testimony “ought not to stand and is frivolous since it is certain that a man approved in the aforesaid art could cure the sick better than any woman.” (Right—certain, even though the cured patients were standing! Right! There!) In a sad end to this tale, Jacqueline and three other empirics were banned from practicing medicine, threatened with excommunication, and fined sixty livres. Even more sadly, Jacqueline’s verdict discouraged women from practicing medicine in France for the next five and a half centuries. (If there’s any justice in the world, the judge died from a totally curable illness while covered in leeches.) Still, you have to admire Jacqueline for not only being amazing at her job but also knowing her worth and sticking up for it, even when her livelihood was on the line.

We don’t know what became of Jacqueline after her trial, but I’d like to imagine that she spent her days in a nice warm country healing ladies ’til she dropped. And that, from the afterlife, she forces the judge who condemned her to watch every graduation ceremony of women medical students ever.

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