Merit Ptah: a woman not Marie Curie

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace

It is embarrassing. There is this question

“name a female scientist, not counting Marie Curie”.

I cannot really do it. I can say “oh.. you know, that lady .. whatshername…”. I can do Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852), the “mother” of computer programming. Which is sad on so many levels: she lived not that long ago, she is always mentioned as the daughter of Lord Byron, her work would not have happened without Babbage and his analytical engine, there is a pretty painting of her (pretty pictures and ladies sell), and I walk past her every time I am at uni. And of course. Her contribution is contested. And of course Maria Sibylla Merian.

Going back to ancient times, according to Wikipedia, there is Merit Ptah. This is pretty much all that is said about her there:

Merit Ptah (“Beloved of the god Ptah”; c. 2700 BCE) was an early physician in ancient Egypt. She is most notable for being the first woman known by name in the history of the field of medicine, and possibly the first named woman in all of science as well.

Merit Ptah, The Scientist 1987
Merit Ptah, The Scientist 1987

So all that is said about her is that she is the first woman in (medical) science. She is mentioned because she is a she, for having non-dangly genitals. Hurrah! What she did? Don’t know. Following links from Wikipedia, there is a tiny notice in The Scientist, in 1987. The heading being “Calculating woman” which is pretty speculative and tasteless. The reference is of course to mathematical calculation, but the cultural connotation is “Machiavellian woman” (which is another story). Of course, it starts with a love affair. Because. Well. Women, you know. Those non-dangly genitals. Defined by their relationships to the dangly ones. Note that it says:

“The earliest woman scientist unearthed by Herzenberg was Merit Ptah, a chief physician in ancient Egypt in about 2700 BC. Two women chemists in ancient Mesopotamian were in charge of the perfume business”.

As far as I can work out, Merit Ptah and those other two had nothing to do with each other but is mentioned in the same paragraph rather bizarrely. Did Herzenberg “unearth” those other two too? Are they mentioned to fill in with some more non-dangly-genetalia-scientists? And the heading “Calculating woman”: does it refer to Heloise or Theano? Another link from Wikipedia from Merit Ptah goes to a site from the University of Alabama, and this is all it says:

“Her image is painted in an Egyptian tomb in the Valley of the Kings. She is, we believe, the world’s first named physician and the first woman known by name in the history of science! She was described by her son, a high priest, as “the chief physician.”

Merit Ptah
Merit Ptah

They even add a “!”. She is described by her son, a high priest, which presumably gives the statement credibility, and there is apparently a painting of her. You could turn that sentence around, and say “… the first woman known by name in the history of science. Her son (whatever his name) became a high priest, and described her on (Papyrus? Stone relief? painting?) in (city of?)”.

An image search gives up ONE image (the others being of a different woman, a queen). And I do not mean that it is one image repeated. But just one.

For thousands of years, fifty percent of the human population have been largely ignored, and we have a special language when they do pop up. Merit Ptah is defined by her son. We talk about women as lovers of, daughters of, mothers of, in retrospect. Of course, often we do not know much, but there is, for example, a chance that Merit Ptah had some influence on her son, perhaps in his becoming a high priest. Rather than him being a high priest giving credibility and legitimacy to her existence. Perhaps it was the other way around.

Think about your mum, your sister, aunt. And what influence they had on you.

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