Thursday, January 16, 2020

Finding our predecessors as women in STEM, Pitfalls and Mistaken Identity of Merit Ptah

Merit Ptah, Chief Physician, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 11" x 14", 2018
An astronomy professor of mine memorably told our class that Tycho Brahe lost his nose in a dwell over a "woman of ill repute" - while colourful, this isn't true. The aristocrat Brahe was not supposed to marry a commoner, but her did, and she, like his sister, was involved in his scientific enterprise and does not deserve to be remembered vaguely and inaccurately as a "woman of ill repute".

Being a woman on the Internet, sometimes I receive none-too-polite "corrections" to history of science I present. Once I posted on Twitter about Marie Tharp and how she found the Mid-Atlantic ridge. I got a blunt reply from a professor of crystallography that this knowledge predates her by centuries. He was wrong. He was confusing knowledge of the rise (the geographic feature indeed known in broad strokes for centuries) with knowledge of the ridge (which is a geophysical feature where we now know new crust is born) which helped usher in the plate tectonics revolution in the latter part of the twentieth century. The fact that my doctorate in marine geophysics is a lot closer in subject matter than his did not protect me from being chastised, publicly, and wrongly. But, I am keenly aware that scientists themselves are not always the most accurate re-tellers of the history of science, and that we can fall into the pitfalls of repeating misinformation provided by fellow scientists. Sometimes, we can't resist a good story.

I was once told one of my scientist portraits was "an insult" because, though I had used several references, my anonymous critic has correctly inferred I had included a portrait of the subject's sister-in-law (which can be commonly found online, mislabelled as the scientist herself). While dismayed, I don't think this strident critic was reasonable or communicating productively. I used the incorrectly labelled portrait mainly as a reference for her clothing, so I think my error is regretable but not historically misleading. Sadly this critic's antagonism is all too common online.

In complete contrast, I'm quite impressed at the kindness and consideration of a recent message I received from medical historian Jakub Kwiecinski who has been researching Merit Ptah, reputedly the earliest recorded woman in medicine and subject of one of my portraits. He wrote me to say though he's a fan of my portrait (and has bought two), he's quite certain she didn't exist! He generously assumed I suspected as much. To be honest, I did not, but as I wrote about her here I was clear that information about her online was surprisingly thin, repetitive and often inaccurate. I had seen that the same information was repeated again and again, without ever seeming to find anything independent. I had also noted that there were no credible images of her, which seemed weird since there was allegedly an inscription about her made by her son. I also noted the existence of other documented near-contemporary ancient Egyptian doctors. I hadn't concluded that in fact this self-referential nest of authors citing each other was all perpetuating an untrue story. He included his article on the subject, where he carefully traces all information about her back to a single source from almost a century ago. He explains why it appeared that there were independent sources and gives a very credible explanation how the author who introduced her, Canadian feminist medical doctor Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, likely made an innocent error, misinterpreting a report and conflating two people. The healer and Overseer of Healer Woman that did exist was  Peseshet (5th Dynasty, 2465-2323, later than supposed for Merit Ptah). Since the name, tomb location and date were confused with someone a bit earlier, that gave "Merit Ptah" priority. Kwiecinski's article is one half detective story, showing how all online sources and even published popular histories are interconnected and link back to Hurd-Mead and how she likely misinterpreted a report about Peseshet. The second half is a study of the role of popular histories, and how "Merit Ptah" became a feminist hero. While pointing out the dangers of secondary sources, and how amateur historians or scientists seeking female predecessors in their fields have different interests than historians (none of whom had written about Merit Ptah) the article doesn't chastise those who did write about Merit Ptah. Instead, it documents how the supposed existence of this doctor, has been very important to contemporary women in science and medicine. I, and this blog, actually make a cameo appearance in his article. As mentioned in footnote 87, my post was apparently the only one he found which cast doubt on Merit Ptah, pointing out that online images that purport to be her are clearly mislabelled (either men, or another woman who was named Merit Ptah who lived a full millennium later).  I'm tickled to have been cited in this scholarly publication for actually looking at online images and information with a critical eye!

The article 'Merit Ptah, “The First Woman Physician”: Crafting of a Feminist History with an Ancient Egyptian Setting' in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences is paywalled though the abstract is here. But the story has been picked up by the press, for instance this National Post article where Kwiecinski argues, “She is a very real symbol of the 20th-century feministic struggle to write women back into the history books, and to open medicine and STEM to women.”

So now, I have to figure out what to do with my portrait. As a print, I think it works. But, I don't want to perpetuate misconceptions. I could reimagine her as a symbol of legendary predecessors, of the feminist drive to point out that women did play a role in many historical endeavours, including science, though they have been left out of the story, rather than a portrait of an actual documented individual. I could also revise the print, change the hieroglyphics and making my Old Kingdom female doctor into Peseshet. Interestingly, I was able to find the actual inscription about Peseshet online. What to do when your historical portrait turns out to be of an imaginary person is an interesting problem. I think I might do both. I will continue to make the remaining Merit Ptah prints available, with a new description and I may also carve a new ancient Egyptian incription and print a second print with my doctor with real text which was written about a real woman Peseshet. What would you do?

Depiction of the Stela of the lady Peseshet from John F. Nunn, Acient Egyptian Medicine,
University of Oklahoma Press, 2002