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Classical Studies

Professor Helen King

I am Professor of Classical Studies, and I moved to the OU from the University of Reading in 2011. My first degree, at UCL, was in Ancient History and Social Anthropology; I then held research fellowships in Cambridge and Newcastle, taught in Liverpool for 8 years, and came to Reading on a Wellcome Trust University Award in 1996. I have been a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (2001), a Lansdowne Visiting Lecturer at the University of Victoria, British Columbia (2002), and a Visiting Professor at the University of Texas at Austin (2005). In Spring 2014 I shall be the Käthe Leichter Visiting Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Vienna. My history of medicine interests include my service from 1998-2003 as the co-editor of Social History of Medicine (Oxford University Press), and membership of a variety of funding committees at the Wellcome Trust, including several years as Chair of the Research Resources in Medical History Committee and membership of the main History of Medicine Grants Panel and the Strategic and Enhancement Awards Committee. 

I welcome enquiries from potential research students and would be happy to supervise doctoral work in aspects of gender and medicine in the ancient world and beyond: my email address is Recent and current theses supervised include work on the body in late antiquity, the historiography of ancient Athenian and pre-Hellenic women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, early medical illustrations, the patient in the work of Rufus of Ephesus, sterility in the ancient world, and classical reception at Stourhead.

Areas of Interest:

Ancient medicine

From my PhD (on ancient Greek menstruation) onwards, I have been interested in setting ancient medical thought within its social and cultural context, as one way - among others - of making sense of life. I've therefore looked at ancient ideas about creation, the role of women, and sacrifice to illuminate Hippocratic gynaecology (Hippocrates' Woman: Reading the female body in ancient Greece, Routledge, 1998). From teaching the history of medicine at Reading, I wrote a short introduction to the main issues, Greek and Roman Medicine (Bristol Classical Press, 2001). You can read a review of this book online via Project Muse (subscription required).

This is aimed at undergraduate students and general readers. A new volume in French, La Médecine dans l'Antiquité grecque et romaine (Editions BHMS, 2008) starts from this book but adds extra material, especially on the visual evidence; this was co-written with Véronique Dasen (Fribourg). Read a review of this book online.

A volume of essays on Health in Antiquity was published under my editorship in 2005 (Routledge). For ten years I also taught on, and examined, the History of Medicine Diploma run by the Society of Apothecaries, London.

Reception of ancient medicine

I have written on the use of classical models in nursing and midwifery, but I am particularly interested in the alleged (and imaginary) classical origins of 'hysteria', on which I've published Hysteria Beyond Freud (written with S. Gilman, R. Porter, G.S. Rousseau and E. Showalter, University of California Press, 1993), a section in History of Clinical Psychiatry (eds G. Berrios and R. Porter, Athlone Press, 1995), and 'Recovering hysteria from history: Herodotus and "the first case of shell shock"' in Peter Halligan et al. (eds), Contemporary Approaches to the Science of Hysteria: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2001). I continue to work on psychiatry; see for example my chapter on phobia in William V. Harris (ed.), Mental Disorders in the Classical World (Brill, 2013).

My appointment to Reading on a Wellcome Trust University Award was to work on a project on the reception of the sixteenth-century compilation, the Gynaeciorum libri; in particular, the impact of Hippocratic gynaecology in the period after its publication in Latin by Calvi in 1525, but also the subsequent history of the books themselves, their owners and their uses. Outputs from this funding include my monograph The Disease of Virgins: Green-Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty (Routledge, 2003), which moves from sixteenth-century ideas based on Hippocratic medicine, to the early twentieth century. Find out more about this book. Another monograph, Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology (Ashgate, 2007), focuses on uses of classical medicine in the eighteenth century, a time when men and women were in competition for control over childbirth, and sheds new light on how the claim of female 'difference' was shaped by specific social and cultural conditions. It examines the use made of the 1597 Gynaeciorum libri by some of its early modern owners and users, and the remodelling of Hippocrates as the 'Father of Midwifery'. View the table of contents online. Read a review of this book.

I also have a new project on the reception of Thucydides' account of the plague of Athens. Unlike previous studies of the plague, this does not seek to perform retrospective diagnosis, but rather to use early modern and modern translations, literary accounts and medical descriptions to investigate the uses of this text by those espousing a range of views on how disease is transmitted.

In 2009, I co-organised with Manfred Horstmanshoff and Claus Zittel a conference at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, on the history of physiology: 'Blood, sweat and tears'. This was published in the series Intersections: Yearbook for Early Modern Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2012). Find out more about this publication.

I am Visiting Professor at the Peninsula Medical School in Truro, where I teach an SSU module on the history of dissection. I greatly enjoy the interchange with 'real' medical students, helping them to develop a historical perspective to their practice. My topic is particularly relevant because human dissection does not form part of the curriculum there. I work with the De Partu history of childbirth network, and in 2012 I co-organised a conference bringing together people from many disciplines, including midwives, to discuss narrative and birthing. I have published on the history of pain, drawing on comparative studies of modern sufferers from chronic pain. For the impact of classical studies on improving the understanding of patients’ needs, see my short film on the healing power of Greek and Roman tales. I enjoy working with the wider public too, and co-led a Martin Randall Travel cruise with the theme 'Ancient Greek Philosophy and Medicine' as well as speaking on one of the company's weekend events on the nature of history. In September 2013 I led a history of medicine tour of Italy for the second time.

Gender/History of the body

My 2013 monograph The One-Sex Body on Trial: Using the Classical and Early Modern Evidence (Ashgate) examines the reception of the story of the ‘first midwife’ Agnodice and of the Hippocratic case history of Phaethousa of Abdera, who grew a beard after her husband was exiled. By tracing the different versions of each story that existed between c.1550 and 1840, I show how the authority of the classics was invoked in professional disputes about medicine, debates about the role of women, and discussions of sexual identity. I was awarded an AHRC Fellowship to complete this monograph. An interview in which I discuss the Agnodice story and its reception with my colleague Dr Jessica Hughes appears in the ‘Classics Confidential’ series; watch this online.

I was Women's Studies Area Advisor to the Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996) and am a member of the international EuGeStA network. I have also published on ancient Greek and Roman sexology, most recently with 'Medicine and disease’, Sexuality in the Classical World (500 BC-350 AD), eds Peter Toohey and Mark Golden (Berg, 2010), 107-124 and ‘Galen and the widow. Towards a history of therapeutic masturbation in ancient gynaecology’, EuGeStA: Journal on Gender Studies in Antiquity 1 (December 2011), 205-235; this article was awarded the Barbara McManus Prize by the Women’s Classical Caucus.


In 1981 I co-edited, with my PhD supervisor S.C. Humphreys, Mortality and Immortality: the anthropology and archaeology of death (Academic Press). My interest in death has continued, and I've also worked on the role of the doctor at the deathbed in classical antiquity; a preliminary study, comparing classical and early modern deathbeds, has been published in Dutch and a second piece, on Hippocratic deathbeds, is forthcoming.


In October 2009, I recorded 'Myth and Reason', part of the audio material for the module A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Since I arrived at the OU I have been chair of A219 Exploring the Ancient World, and I am writing for the new MA. Some reflections on teaching gender appear in the 2011 CUCD Bulletin. I have also completed a chapter on Teaching Uncomfortable Subjects in the Classics Classroom for a volume being edited by Fiona McHardy and Nancy Rabinowitz.

When I arrived at the OU, I was interested to find that my predecessor Professor Lorna Hardwick had attended the same secondary school; we wrote about our experiences of being taught about the ancient world in From Sutton High School to the Open University.


Podcast of 'In Our Time' episode on Galen, with Caroline Petit and Vivian Nutton, October 2013

On Titian’s ‘Diana and Callisto’ , National Gallery Podcast 70, July 2012: and see blog post ‘Diana, Callisto and Philip II’ on

On Agnodike the ‘flashing midwife’, March 2012.

Podcast of ‘In Our Time’ episode on The Hippocratic Oath with Peter Pormann and Vivian Nutton, September 2011.

Podcast of plenary lecture on women’s health in history, Anglo-American Conference of Historians 2011. (Follow the link for Plenary 7).


See also Open Research Online and for further details of Helen King’s research publications.

To find out more about my current research into using insights from the past to improve patient health, you can watch this video interview filmed for the OU Platform website.

Helen King photo


Midwifery, Obstetrics and the Rise of Gynaecology book cover

The One-Sex Body on Trial - cover

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