The Mothers of Modern Medicine
Holy Unmercenary Physicians
Sts. Hermione, Philonella & Zenaida
Zenaida & Philonella
A strong tradition in the Orthodox Christian world was that of the Holy Unmercenary physicians. This category of saint was made up of trained physicians who, being Christian, added not only the holistic dimension to their practice, but treated the poor and disadvantaged without charge for their services. They combined clinical medicine with prayer, never disdaining pharmaceuticals or traditional medical practices.
Interestingly, this tradition was founded by three women - the first in the long series of "unmercinary physicians." So far as we know, the first of these great "unmercinary physicians" were women. The sisters, Zenaida and Philonella were born in the district of Tarsus early in the first century. They were cousins of Apostle Paul and sisters of the first Christian bishop of Tarsus, Jason. They were born into a highly educated Jewish family. Both sisters entered the famous school at Tarsus to study philosophy but were especially attracted to the lectures of the medical theorists. They were converted to Chrisitanity by their brother Jason and were very much attracted by the love and compassion of Christ. After their baptism, the two gave themselves over more fully to the study of medicine and began to apply Christian principles and ideas to medical philosophy. Orthodox Christianity taught that salvation is a healing process. The two sisters were deeply impressed with the realization that Christ tied the healing of the whole person, spiritual and physical with the presence of the Heavenly Kingdom.
When Zenaida and Philonella competed their studies, they moved to Thessaly, where there were many medicinal mineral springs flowing in the numerous caverns of the Felion Mountains. The sisters purchased one of these medicinal springs and built a small dwelling and clinic in its cavern.
Philonella was a patient and careful scholar who was determined to separate medicine from ideas of magic and astrology. She was also much interested in women's health problems and became a pioneer of gynecology. Zenaida, who was more of a contemplative, was keenly interested in the suffring of children and worked to develop pediatric care. Toward the end of her life, Zenaida became interested in what we would now call "psychiatric medicine." Many of those who came to their hospital suffered from severe depression and other psychiatric illnesses. Zenaida had the wisdom to recognize these as actual illnesses and concerned herself with their causes and cure. In the Orthodox Church, the two sisters are known as "the friends of peace."
The other pioneer of the holy unmercenary tradition was Hermione, a daughter of Philip the Deacon (Acts chapter 6). She was born in Caesarea of Palestine early in the first century. Joined by her sister Eukhidia, Saint Hermione bought a house and founded a medical clinic devoted to the treatment of the poor and the homeless. Rooms were added for poor travelers who were ill. In this way, Hermione started the tradition of Christian hospital-hostels or "xenodokhia", which would become so much a part of the function of the early Orthodox Christian dioceses.
They are commemorated on October 11, close to the annual Retreat.
Puhalo, Archbishop Lazar, The Impact of Orthodox Christian Thought on Medicine, (Synaxis Press, 1974) pp. 51-53.
Synaxis Press The Canadian Orthodox Publishing House.
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