The Centre for the History of Medicine, Durham University, UK.
Sponsored by the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine, supported
by the Wellcome Trust, London
Research Seminar Reminder
Tuesday 10 March 2009: Dr James Wilberding (Newcastle University):
‘The Mother as Creator of her Offspring: Neoplatonic Embryology’
5.15pm, Durham University, Queen’s Campus, Stockton-on-Tees, Wolfson
Research Institute, Seminar Room
For further information, please visit our webpage at
http://www.dur.ac.uk/chmd/news/ or contact the Centre’s
Administrator/Outreach Officer, Katherine Smith,
For directions to Queen’s Campus, Stockton, please visit our webpage at
When does an embryo become a human being? And how is the development of
the embryo dependent upon each of its parents? These are questions that
have occupied ancient philosophers since their Presocratic beginnings.
It is well known that on these issues Aristotle and his school did not
see eye to eye with most physicians. Whereas Aristotle makes the male,
as the provider of the form, the craftsman of the offspring, Galen and
the Hippocratics insisted that both male and female were responsible.
The reasons for this disagreement are both empirical and metaphysical,
and this paper explores the metaphysical issues surrounding embryology
in late antiquity. This is a period in which Neoplatonism emerges to
offer a new and very un-Aristotelian understanding of ontology and
substance, and I shall argue that it is this new metaphysical outlook
that, when applied to embryology, not only allows but even forces
Neoplatonists to give the female an elevated status in the process of
generation, making her rather than the male the ‘craftsman’. This new
understanding of the mother’s role is then confirmed by appeal to
empirical data that was not considered by Aristotle.