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First Cambridge Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine

Thursday 1 December 2005
4.30pm in Seminar Room 2

Professor Helen King (University of Reading)
'Women's bodies in sixteenth-century medicine: using the classical tradition'

estienneBefore the discovery of the ovum, how was women's contribution to generation envisaged? While women could be seen as merely containers for male seed, other Western traditions gave menstrual blood a key role, making menstruation not evidence of failure to generate, but an essential element of generation. This talk will examine the uses made of the Hippocratic and Galenic texts on gynaecology and reproduction in the sixteenth century. It will focus on the work of the Galenist Sylvius (Jacques DuBois) on generation and menstruation (1555); Sylvius taught at Paris, and was physician to Henri II, and to the royal children. In the French translation (1559), made by Guillaume Chrestien, physician in ordinary to the Duke of Bouillon, and subsequently to François I and to Henri II, the section on generation is dedicated to the future François II on his marriage, and that on menstruation to Diane de Poitiers. Chrestien's preface is also very Galenic in content, despite his reference to 'Father Hippocrates, author of all those good things which we have in the art of medicine', and gives us a valuable insight into the gendering of both medical knowledge and medical care. I will argue that recent work claiming to identify change in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century notions of generation, and to tie this to very specific social and economic changes, overlooks the important and lasting contribution made by classical Greek and Roman texts.

There will be tea before the lecture, at 4.15pm in Seminar Room 1, and a drinks reception afterwards, at 6pm in Seminar Room 1.


11.30–1.00 in Seminar Room 1

'William Smellie vs John Burton: using the history of medicine in eighteenth-century obstetrics'

Professor King will introduce a discussion of a pre-circulated paper. All welcome!

Cambridge historians of medicine and biology are using a Wellcome strategic award to take a concerted approach to the history of reproduction.


Explore our online exhibition on the history of embryo images.


Browse and search Simon Forman's and Richard Napier's records of thousands of consultations.