episode 24. The “Classical” Woman: Ancient Theories of Female Anatomy

In a time when most anatomy theories were based on animals, not humans, it’s not surprising that ancient physicians may have gotten a fact or two wrong. But it is truly impressive how a single theory can incorrectly span the entire female anatomy. Gotta respect the hustle I guess. In this episode we are talking about ancient theories of female anatomy from general anatomy, to the breasts, to the uterus, to a mystery vein, and more! We will discuss a number of theories involving female anatomy and ancient medicine, as well as debunk said theories. Then we will talk about how these theories have created an inherent bias in the anatomy curriculum today that can affect future provider practices and patient care. Join us in this episode to have some fun and laughs while learning these ancient theories, then stay along to discuss how to positively approach female anatomy today!

Feminist Corner:

What was your experience learning female anatomy in medical school? Can you describe it for us and how it applies to the story we just heard?

Do you see in medicine today any theories that perpetuate ideas that women are inherently ‘lesser’ than men?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

In this episode we are talking about ancient theories of female anatomy! Instead of going down our usual historical path, we are going to follow an anatomical path through this story. 

Up first is a general theory of women and ancient medicine: the four humors. In the four humor theory, there is a balance between the bodily fluids of: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Out of these four humors, it was said that women encompassed the cold humors. And of course it didn’t just mean women were chilly, it was believed that it meant women were unintelligent and lesser than men. But why were women colder than men?

Well it is because ancient physicians believed that women were more porous than men, meaning that their open pores allowed in moisture and cold. Additionally, they believed that women had more glands than men, causing increased pores and increased moisture. When you combine all of these beliefs, it was thought that women’s breasts increased in size due to an increase in moisture. And in turn, the increase in moisture was thought to contribute to breast milk. It was also thought to attract nutrients through the kivreis vein. 

The kiveris vein was thought to be a vein that communicated between the breasts and the uterus, creating a single circulatory system within the female reproductive tract. But of course when physicians began to dissect humans, they saw that this vein did not exist. But they did see that the way veins/arteries entered the uterus was different depending on the side of the body. And they took this anatomy and ran with it, stating that female fetuses were formed on the ‘dirty blood’ side and male fetuses on the ‘cleaner blood’ side. Of course this was also very wrong but it ties back into the four humors theory as the ‘dirty blood’ was believed to not have enough heat, resulting in a cold and underdeveloped seed that would create the female. 

And the underdevelopment did not stop there, Galen also believed that female genitalia was actually an incomplete form of male genitalia. So throughout the female body, from the skin inwards and back out again, we are seeing this overarching theme of comparison. Every theory across ancient European medicine is asking “how are women different and less worthy than men”. These theories that were created at the beginning of the study of anatomy generated an inherent bias in the field when it comes to human anatomy. The theories that famous and well respected ancient physicians such as Galen, Hippocrates, Aristotle, etc. promoted around female anatomy may seem funny to us now, but they ultimately worked to undermine and subordinate women.


HISTORY OF THE MALE AND FEMALE GENITALIA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/class/history13/earlysciencelab/body/femalebodypages/genitalia.html

A HISTORY OF THE BREASTS. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/class/history13/earlysciencelab/body/femalebodypages/breasts.html

A HISTORY OF THE KIVERIS VEIN. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/class/history13/earlysciencelab/body/femalebodypages/kiverisvein.html

Dean Jones, L. (1994). Medicine: The “Proof” of Anatomy. In Women in the Classical World (pp. 183-204). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Morgan, S., Plaisant, O., Lignier, B., & Moxham, B. J. (2013). Sexism and anatomy, as discerned in textbooks and as perceived by medical students at Cardiff University and University of Paris Descartes. Journal of Anatomy, 224(3), 352-365. doi:10.1111/joa.12070

Paster, G. K. (1998). The Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Womens Imperfection and the Humoral Economy. English Literary Renaissance, 28(3), 416-440. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6757.1998.tb00760.xTuana, N. (1988). The Weaker Seed. The Sexist Bias of Reproductive Theory. Hypatia,3(1), 35-59. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.1988.tb00055.x

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