Professor Rebecca Flemming
I am the inaugural A.G. Leventis Chair in Ancient Greek Scientific and Technological Thought. My research focuses on ancient medicine in its social and cultural context, with special attention to gender, sexuality, and reproduction. I take an interdisciplinary approach to the subject, using literary texts and material objects as well as modern scientific evidence to explore disease, health and healing, the full range of patients and practitioners in the Greek and Roman worlds, and to investigate the diversity of understandings and debates about the human body.
Recent publications include:
I am co-editor of the Antiquity volume in the forthcoming Cambridge History of Medicine.
My research currently has four main focuses, all of which overlap:
- Reproduction and Society: the focus on fertility in ancient Greek and Roman society, the amount of energy and effort dedicated to having healthy children who contributed to familial continuity in a broader sense, has still not been fully appreciated and understood. This was a key feature of social organisation and state interest. So I continue to work in this area, expanding on the first part of Reproduction: Antiquity to the Present Day.
- Pandemics, pestilence and disease: the development of new scientific techniques, as well as the experiences of the global covid pandemic, have served to put the spotlight on epidemics and disease in the ancient Mediterranean. Classical medieval texts also have much to offer these studies, which require a critical multidisciplinary approach. See my survey essay 'Pandemics in the Ancient Mediterranean World' for some suggestions.
- Bodies, gender and sexuality: I am writing the chapter on 'Prostitution, medicine, health, and the body' for the Antiquity Volume of Bloomsbury's forthcoming Cultural History of Prostitution, which has me rethinking some familiar subjects, as well as completing the second (material) part of my essay 'The Classical Clitoris', an organ better known to diverse ancient (and medieval) medical authorities than various early modern European anatomists would have you believe.
- Medicine and the environment: as the Hippocratic text Airs Waters Places most famously explained, there was an intimate relationship between health, disease and the environment in the ancient world. The complexities of this relationship, the various interdependencies established and exploited, require further investigation however, as also demanded by the current climate crisis. A conference on ‘Animals and the Environment in Ancient Mediterranean Medicine’ in July 2023 will explore some of these themes further.
I welcome enquiries from prospective PhD students with research proposals related to any of my research interests, especially: women and gender in ancient medicine; reproduction and society; medicine and enslavement; pestilence and pandemics in the ancient Mediterranean; healing gods and their cults; sex and sexuality.
PhD topics I have recently supervised include: embryology in ancient Greece and early China; impaired consciousness in ancient medicine; childbirth and risk in the Roman world; women, medicine and authority in late antique medicine.
External impact and engagement
In addition to regular talks to school groups and at local festivals, I was Joukowsky Lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America in 2020-2021, and gave a virtual lecture on 'Galen's gynaecology', for the exhibition The Empire's Physician: Prosperity, Plague and Healing curated by the institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (https://isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions/galen), in May 2021
I also appeared on 'In our Time: The Plague of Justinian', BBC Radio 4, 21/01/21
After experimenting with other careers, I did my MA and PhD in the Department of History at University College London, and held a post-doc at the (since deceased) Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine in London. I taught first at King’s College London and then the University of Cambridge before taking up my chair in Exeter in 2022.