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 or contact the Centre’s

Administrator/Outreach Officer, Katherine Smith,

mailto:[email protected]

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.