Ancient Egyptian Medicine

As expected, ancient Egyptian medicine involved some strange cures. But it also had some quite innovative ideas that still form the basis of many modern medical practices. Through studying the mummies, we are able to learn about the many diseases that the ancient Egyptians suffered from, and we were also able to learn much about the methods the doctors used.

Medical records on papyrus and understanding of the climate and living conditions of the time also help us paint a picture of ancient Egyptian medicine.

Most Egyptians suffered greatly 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.

Egyptian Medicine

All that coupled with the fact that many of the cures were quite dangerous themselves made for a relatively low life expectancy, and a life full of physical pain and weakness.

But the ancient Egyptians studies and experimented until they had a medical care system - ancient Egyptian medicine came complete with:

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.

And of course the magic spells to go along.

Doctor, Priest & Magician

As with most things in ancient Egypt, religion was a part of medicine too. Most doctors were priests that also trained in medicine, usually in a training facility in 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.

The doctors were trained in medicine and magic, and usually it was an inherited career from father to son. There were also female doctors, but the majority was male.

There were professional divisions in ancient Egyptian medicine 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 ranking position too!)
  • Specialists (like teeth, stomach, etc...)

Doctors worked in the temple as well as having a private practice if they chose. Their wages were paid through barter since there was no monetary system in ancient Egypt.

Common Ailments and Cures

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. 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.

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 jaw bone too. Everyone in ancient Egypt suffered from this.

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, by 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 bizarre. But you still have to admire the fact that the ancient Egyptians had a medical care system at all. They were quite advanced in that respect.

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