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Ancient Egyptian Medicine

The Edwin Smith Papyrus.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus.

Ancient Egyptian medical practises were so advanced that many of their procedures and observations were not eclipsed by western medicine for centuries following the fall of Rome. Both the ancient Greeks and Roman borrowed extensively from Egyptian medical expertise. Doctors in ancient Egypt were both male and female, made house calls, understood the importance of cleanliness in treating their patients and recognized the healing benefits of aromatherapy and in massage and knew disease could be treated effectively using pharmaceuticals.

Historians and Egyptologists suspect the mortality rate following medical intervention in ancient Egypt was lower than European hospitals in the Christian era until the advent of personal hygiene practices and instrument sterilization was adopted in the mid-20th century.

However, even in a culture where bodies were regularly dissected for embalming, ancient Egyptian doctors had minimal insight into how the functioning of the internal organs and routinely blamed supernatural forces for disease or illness.

Facts About Medicine In Ancient Egypt

  • Ancient Egyptians put a premium on cleanliness. They bathed and purified their bodies and shaved their body hair to ward off illness
  • They believed the human body comprised passages that worked like irrigation canals. When they became blocked, the person became ill
  • The ancient Egyptians researched how the body works and documented their finding
  • They discovered the pulse was connected to the heartbeat and the bronchial tubes to the lungs
  • Malaria was common in Egypt and doctors had no treatment for it
  • Ancient Egyptians invented 11 different techniques for aiding difficult deliveries
  • Only alcohol was used as anesthesia during surgical procedures.
  • A parasite in the Nile River caused Schistosomiasis resulting in numerous deaths
  • Ancient Egyptian doctors were specialized in dentistry, pharmacology, gynecology, autopsy, embalming and general healing.
  • Ancient Egypt’s 4th Dynasty produced Peseshet the world’s first female physician. Her title was, “Lady Overseer of the Lady Physicians”

Dealing With Disease And Injuries

Thanks to the cause and effect nature of injuries, the ancient Egyptians found injuries simple to understand and treat. Disease proved more problematic.

Ancient Egyptian doctors operated a form of triage. They appear to have routinely separated injuries into three different classes.

  1. Treatable injuries, which could be addressed immediately.
  2. Contestable injuries. These were not thought to be life-threatening, so the patient could be expected to survive without the doctor intervening. These patients were monitored to ensure their condition didn’t deteriorate
  3. Untreatable Injuries. These were beyond the doctor’s ability or resources to treat and doctors refrained from intervening.

Doctors treated many diseases by reciting magical spells. Similarly, sin was often seen as the root causes of disease. When that had been ruled out, the patient was often believed to be enduring a tribulation set by the gods, beset by an angry ghost or suffering a demonic attack. An evil force entering the body was seen as the most likely cause of disease and sickness. Subsequently, most doctors were magicians.

Ancient Diseases

Ancient Egyptians suffered from the common cold, heart disease, bronchitis, smallpox, tuberculosis, appendicitis, kidney stones, malaria, liver disease, pneumonia, cancer, dementia; typhoid, arthritis, curvature of the spine, high blood pressure, dysentery, ovarian cysts, bilharziasis from drinking contaminated water and trachomas.

Ancient Egypt’s Medical Texts

Only a few of ancient Egypt’s medical texts have survived to the present day. These cast a light on how the ancient Egyptians perceived disease and the approaches they took to treat a patient’s symptoms and to effect a cure. To varying degrees, all these texts incorporated sympathetic magic alongside their medical techniques.

The New Kingdom (c. 1570 – c. 1069 BCE) era Berlin Medical Papyrus discusses fertility and contraception and contains the earliest known pregnancy tests. The Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE) is the world’s oldest surgical text. The Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus (c. 1200 BCE) advises on treating anorectal disease and recommends cannabis for cancer patients. The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) discusses possible treatments for diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression and birth control, while the Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden (c. 3rd century CE) covers divination and magical spells.

The New Kingdom Hearst Medical Papyrus discusses treatments for digestive issues and urinary tract infections. The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (c. 1800 BCE) deals with pregnancy and conception problems and. the London Medical Papyrus (c. 1782-1570 BCE) lays out prescriptions for issues skin, eye, pregnancy issues and burns.

Doctors were equated to Per Ankh or the House of Life priests. This was a specialized school and library annex attached to a temple.

Doctors And Medical Staff

The first physician to be deified in ancient Egypt as a god of healing and medicine was the vizier and architect Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE) renowned as the gifted designer of Pharaoh Djoser’s Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

Imhotep is also remembered for starting “secular medicine” in Egypt via his writings arguing that disease was a natural phenomenon rather than a punishment from the gods or a supernatural curse.

While women entered the medical record during the Early Dynastic Period when Merit-Ptah served as chief physician to the royal court c. 2700 BCE. Evidence suggests the Temple of Neith in Sais in Lower Egypt was home to a medical school headed by a woman. The famous Greek legend of Agnodice of Athens (c. 4th century BCE) recounts how, after being rejected entrance to the medical profession as she was a woman, Agnodice travelled to Egypt where the medical establishment respected women practitioners.

How and where doctors were trained in ancient Egypt remains unknown. However, important schools were operating in Alexandria as well as in Sais. A doctor was required to be literate and pure in body and spirit. Doctors were referred to as wabau or ritually pure. Thus they were expected to bathe as carefully and as frequently as any high priest.

In ancient Egypt, doctors specialized. However, but there were general practitioners or swnw and specialist magicians or sau. Midwives, nurses, seers, attendants and masseurs assisted the doctor. Births were the exclusive domain of the women of the house and midwives. There is no surviving evidence that midwives received medical training. The Old Kingdom word for midwife is associated with the word for ‘nurse’ or someone who assisted a doctor. Midwives were often female relatives, friends or neighbours.

By comparison, a nurse could be either male or female and was regarded as a respected medical professional. The most in-demand nurse was a wet nurse. Given the high mortality amongst mothers, wet nurses assumed particular importance. Legal documents survived between Women regularly died in childbirth and show agreements between families and wet nurses for the wet nurse to care for the baby should the mother die in childbirth.

Nurses assisted with medical procedures and were widely respected. During the New Kingdom, their representations in tombs and temples were associated with the divine.

Dentists

Dentistry emerged as a speciality from ancient Egypt’s established medical profession but failed to develop as extensively. Ancient Egyptians suffered from protracted dental problems throughout their culture’s history. Doctors also practised dentistry but there appear to be comparatively few dentists. Hesyre (c. 2600 BCE), Chief of Dentists and Physician to the Pharaoh Djoser (c. 2700 BCE) has the honour of being history’s first named dentist.

The earliest known dental procedure was performed in ancient Egyptian between 3,000 B.C. and 2,500 B.C. It is believed to have involved extracting teeth or drilling cavities. Dental problems appear to have been particularly prevalent in ancient Egypt thanks to a diet high in coarse bread and the accelerated wear associated with the pervasiveness of sand in their food.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus contains suggestions for healing mouth wounds caused by the wearing away of tooth tissue resulting in abscesses, inflammation and tooth loss. The ancient Egyptians developed pain relieving mouthwashes, which also promoted healthy teeth and gums. Their ingredients included sweet beer, celery and bran.

Dental surgeries were also performed in ancient Egypt. Treatments documented include draining abscesses, cutting away diseased gum tissue and treating a dislocated jaw. Mummies have also been found with dental bridges in place.

The New Kingdom Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE) appears to have died as a result of complications from an abscessed tooth. Dental problems were far from uncommon as can be seen from X-Rays and scans of mummies. Evidence has survived of tooth extractions and the fashioning of false teeth while opium was used as an early form of anesthetic.

A virulent tooth-worm was widely thought to be responsible for toothaches and other dental complaints. The recommended cure was to recite ritual incantations and magical spells to drive out the worm. Similar incantations against the tooth-worm have been found in cuneiform inscriptions excavated in ancient Sumer.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine, Healing Deities And Medical Instruments

Doctors and dentists made extensive use of medicinal herbs and spices. One cure prescribed for chronic bad breath was to chew a gumball comprising cinnamon, honey, pignon, frankincense and myrrh. Ancient Egyptians also recognized the importance diet played in health and records of suggested dietary improvements have survived.

Magical beliefs were widespread amongst Egyptian society and magical remedies were viewed as being as normal and as natural as any alternative course of treatment. Heka the god of magic also performed double duty as a god of medicine. Heka was depicted carrying a staff with two serpents entwined around it. This ancient Greeks adopted this symbol and associated it with Asclepius their god of healing. Today, this heritage is identifiable in the caduceus the symbol of the medical profession. Originally the caduceus is thought to have emerged in Sumer as the staff of Ninazu, son of Gula the Sumerian goddess of healing before it made its way from Egypt to Greece.

In addition to Heka, several other deities had important healing roles, particularly Sekhmet, Sobek, Nefertumand and Serket. Each priest of Serket was a doctor, although conversely, not all doctors belonged to her cult. Magical incantations and spells regularly beseeched the intervention of Serket and Sekhmet together with Heka. In specific circumstances, magical assistance could also be sought from deities such as Tawawret or Bes in cases of children’s diseases or fertility issues. Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god, appears to have been regularly appealed to for surgical or other invasive procedures. Nefertum, the Egyptian god of perfumes connected with healing and the lotus, was summoned during aromatherapy-based treatments. The Kahun Papyrus describes a treatment frequently prescribed for women. It involved fumigating the patient with incense to drive out evil spirits. Nefertum’s assistance would have been invoked during these treatment sessions.

Surgical procedures were surprisingly common. Excavations have identified numerous instruments some of which remain in use even today. Egyptian surgeons employed flint and metal scalpels, bone saws, probes, forceps, specula, lancets for opening veins and clamps for stopping blood flow, scissors, dental pliers, catheters, sponges, phials, linen bandages and weighing scales. Surgeries were surprisingly successful as shown by evidence revealed by scans taken of mummies. Other remains show evidence of survival from brain surgery and amputations for several years. Prosthetic limbs, usually carved from wood have also been discovered during excavations.

Reflecting On The Past

The ancient Egyptians accumulated an extensive knowledge of anatomy due to experience in embalming. However, their belief in magic, ghosts and the supernatural was equally compelling and much of their medical science was devoted to spells and incantations.

Header image courtesy: Jeff Dahl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Ancient Egyptian Medicine," Give Me History, March 22, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/ancient-egyptian-medicine.

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