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Trailblazing Healer: Polish Woman Surgeon Licensed in 1697

By: Katarzyna Litak MD

Magdalena Bendzisławska was a pioneering figure in the field of surgery during a time when societal norms restricted women from such professions. Born in an era when only men held the title of surgeon, Bendzisławska made history by becoming the first licensed female surgeon in Poland in 1697. This remarkable achievement was formally recognized through a license granted by Polish King Augustus II the Strong.

Her journey to becoming a licensed surgeon involved meeting stringent requirements, including a three-year apprenticeship and active participation in the trade. Initially learning the profession's nuances from her husband while working together at the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland, Bendzisławska's commitment to surgery continued even after her husband's passing. Taking charge of his shop, she played a crucial role in providing medical assistance to the miners of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

While historical records about Bendzisławska are limited, her significance as Poland's first licensed female surgeon ensures her place in history. Her story sheds light on the challenges women faced in pursuing professions traditionally reserved for men.

During the Middle Ages (500-1500), the practice of medicine was markedly different. Before Polish King Casimir the Great established the Krakow Academy in 1364 (now Jagiellonian University), individuals aspiring to be medical practitioners had to seek knowledge abroad. Surgery, often regarded as a trade and looked down upon by physicians, required apprenticeships to transfer knowledge and skills. Surgeons like Bendzisławska were not only responsible for medical procedures such as bone setting, tooth extraction, cataract removal, wound care, and bloodletting but also had to craft their own tools and medicines.

Recognizing her groundbreaking achievements, a medal was established in 2011 in Bendzisławska's memory to honor eminent Polish female oral surgeons. Professor Zdzisław Gajda from Jagiellonian University played a crucial role in bringing Magdalena Bendzisławska's story to light, ensuring that her legacy continues to inspire and be remembered.

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