Ancient Egyptian Medicine
Ancient Egyptian medicine was very advanced for its time, and many of its innovative ideas still form the basis of some modern medical practices. It is one of the oldest systems of medicine on record, with papyri showcasing ancient Egypt’s medical beliefs and practices.
Another great source of information came through studying the mummies, which give us insights into the many diseases that the ancient Egyptians suffered from, as well as much information about the methods the physicians used. Understanding the climate and living conditions of the time also help us paint a picture of ancient Egyptian medicine.
Most Egyptians suffered a lot of physical distress during their usually short life spans. Many Egyptians died from disease, or from an overall weakening of their physical condition by contracting many diseases over the course of their lives.
The spreading of disease was facilitated by the constant close contact of people – households were quite crowded with as many as 20 people living in a small house. The hot climate and the presence of bugs, rats and fleas also helped spread diseases rapidly. Hard manual labor, for both men and women, also affected the health of ancient Egyptians of all ages from the working class.
All that coupled with the fact that many of the cures were quite dangerous in and of themselves made for a relatively low life expectancy.
And so the necessity of studying and expanding the medical care system brought about such things as:
- A doctor’s oath (very similar to the modern day Hippocratic Oath)
- Thousands of medical texts with lists of diseases, cures, symptoms, etc.
- Tools such as scalpels, swabs and linen
- A check-up procedure including pulse checks and interviews
- The use of magic alongside the physical treatments
The Medical Papyri
Although there are many medical texts, here we’ll focus on three of the most famous and comprehensive.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus
Named after the dealer who bought the papyrus in Egypt, the Edwin Smith is one of the most well-known and important record on ancient Egyptian medicine because of its uniqueness – it barely references magical practice and instead focuses on practical and scientific approaches.
Dating to around 1600 BCE, the papyrus details cases of injuries and wounds and their surgical treatment.
The Ebers Papyrus
Named after Georg Ebers, the German Egyptologist who bought it, the Ebers Papyrus details both medical and magical practices to cure and prevent diseases. It contains information on gynecology, eyes, skin, burns, heart, intestines, parasites, tumors, bones and even depression. It dates to around 1550 BCE.
The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus
One of the oldest, if not the oldest, medical texts, the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus details women’s health issues such as fertility, pregnancy, conception, contraception and gynecological diseases. It dates to around 1800 BCE and was discovered by the English Egyptologist Sir William Mathew Flinders Petrie.
Other important texts include the Hearst Papyrus, the London Medical Papyrus and the Brugsch Papyrus.
Doctor, Priest and Magician
“The practice of medicine is very specialized among them. Each physician treats just one disease. The country is full of physicians, some treat the eye, some the teeth, some of what belongs to the abdomen, and others internal diseases.” – Herodotus
As with most every facet of ancient Egyptian life, religion and magic were involved.
Most doctors were priests that also trained in medicine, usually in a training facility within the temple itself.
Doctors would chant incantations and cast spells as well as provide medical help.
Many of the cases were believed to be cause by dark supernatural forces, and had to be dealt with on that level.
This is especially true when the cause of the disease was mysterious, rather than an obvious injury in battle for example.
A career as a doctor was an inherited one, from father to son. Although there were women doctors, the majority were men.
There were divisions in the medical profession according to skill and experience.
From lowest to highest rank there were:
- Lay physicians
- Supervisors of the lay physicians
- Magic physicians (who treated people through religious rituals)
- Caretakers of the Pharaoh’s anus (yes that’s right, and it was a high rank too!)
- Specialists (like teeth, stomach, etc.)
Doctors worked in the temple, but could also have a private practice if they chose. Their wages were paid through barter since there was no monetary system in ancient Egypt.
The three most famous doctors in ancient Egypt are also the oldest on record. The first and most important being Imhotep, considered to be the grandfather of medicine and sometimes attributed with the authorship of the Edwin Smith Papyrus – his contributions to ancient Egyptian science, technology, architecture and medicine were so great that he was eventually deified.
Next is Merit-Ptah, and what is remarkable about her is that she is the first female physician to be known by name. In fact, she may even be the first known female in the general field of science in history. She was the Chief Physician of her time.
And finally, we come to the most famous dentist of all – Hesy-Ra – Great One of the Dentists, possibly the first known dentist in history.
These three lived and worked during the Old Kingdom, between 2700 and 2600 BCE.
Common Treatments in Ancient Egyptian Medicine
The most common problems ancient Egyptians suffered from were:
Respiratory problems caused by the sand. Coughing was soothed with a mixture of herbs and honey, but the root cause didn’t have a cure. Tuberculosis was common.
Parasites from the Nile, such as Bilharzia. In fact, this parasite is still quite common till today, although the cure now is just a couple of pills.
On a side note, we lost one of the most popular Egyptian singers to this disease a few decades ago.
Most intestinal parasites were treated with enemas, but they were hardly fully cured. Worms that had parts of the bodies stick outside the skin of the patient were removed by wrapping the visible part of them around a stick and then pulling out the rest gently. This is still the method used today.
Dental problems, especially the wearing down of the enamel due to the use of ground stone or sand in the making of bread. This was an extremely painful condition and usually led to the exposure of the pulp of the teeth and the formation of abscesses. It sometimes led to the wearing down of the jawbone too. It seems that everyone in ancient Egypt suffered from this as is seen from the mummies.
There was no cure for this condition – the only thing that the doctors could do was to drain the abscesses.
Wounds were cleaned and disinfected, usually with copper. Ancient Egyptian doctors also stitched wounds with needle and thread. Broken and fractured bones were usually dealt with the way we do, with splints and casts. Dislocation was dealt with by popping the bones back into place.
Aches and pains, for example from arthritis, were treated with oils and massage.
Eye problems unfortunately had some of the most bizarre treatments, such as pouring hot broken glass into them!
Another very interesting treatment was giving a patient an electric shock using an electric ray.
Also subject to many strange methods were the ladies. Contraception, menstruation, fertility, etc. were helped along using foul concoctions and involved much vomiting.
Ancient Egyptian medicine was truly a mix between two extremes, from the very logical to the very strange. But you still have to admire the fact that the ancient Egyptians had a medical care system in the first place. They were quite advanced in that respect.
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