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Medical Practices in Ancient Egypt

Today, people receive better treatment for illness and disease than ever before, but a lot of what doctors know and do today has its roots in the medical practices of people in ancient Egypt. One of the most notable figures in medicine at that time was Imhotep, royal vizier and physician for Djoser, a pharoah in the 27th century B.C. Imhotep is thought to have not only diagnosed but also treated more than 200 diseases. As a result, he would later become elevated to the status of a god. Egyptians could also attribute their advanced medical understanding and skills to their embalming practices. Organ removal was a part of this process, and as a result, ancient Egyptians were able to greatly advance their knowledge of human anatomy.

Medical Papyri From Ancient Egypt

Evidence of ancient Egyptian medicine and its use to treat certain problems was documented in a number of papyri. Some of the more common papyri are the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Ebers Papyrus, and the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is focused on surgical trauma and procedures and includes details on immobilizing the head, the use of stitches and plasters, and surgical dressings such as grease and honey. It is named after the Egyptologist and collector who purchased it in 1862, and it is considered to be the oldest surviving ancient scientific text. There are 48 cases discussed in the papyrus, and it is thought to contain the first recorded use of the word "brain." Although it's dated around 1600 B.C., the actual text is often credited to Imhotep.

The Ebers Papyrus, which was purchased in 1873 by the German novelist and Egyptologist George Maurice Ebers, focuses heavily on spells and magical formulas. Dating back to 1550 B.C., the papyrus also offers folk and herbal remedies and gives descriptions of the heart and the circulatory system in general. This depiction of the heart was not entirely accurate, however, as it did mistakenly suggest that the heart was the center for all fluids in the body. The first known reference to diabetes is also thought to have been made in the Ebers Papyrus in reference to the "passing of too much urine." The papyrus also documents mental health issues such as depression and dementia as well as information about asthma, intestinal parasites, and contraception. The Kahun Papyrus, which dates back to 1850-1700 B.C., also goes by the name Lahun Medical Papyrus, and it is one of the oldest known Egyptian texts. It consists of 34 sections, each of which addresses a specific problem. The papyrus does not suggest detail the prognosis of any case and only suggests non-surgical treatments such as scented oils, massage, and fumigation. It generally sees the womb as the source of problems that affect the entire body.

Doctors and Ancient Egypt

Medical practitioners in ancient Egypt could be priests, scribes, physicians, or healers. Additionally, both men and women were allowed to be doctors, with Merit-Ptah being the first known female physician in history, serving in 2700 B.C. as the chief physician to the royal court. Physicians could study at schools held in a temple called a House of Life. A physician who practiced medicine at the time was part of a hierarchy and would be considered a regular doctor, a senior doctor, an inspector, or an overseer. When treating individuals, they would separate types of injuries that were treatable, untreatable, and contestable. Contestable injuries were simply observed but not treated by a physician, as they were not life-threatening. People with treatable injuries received medical treatment, while untreatable injuries would not receive care at all. Doctors had the help of nurses and midwives when needed. While midwives were female, nurses could be of either gender. Although they played a significant role in administering care, neither profession received any formal medical training. For information on current medical negligence law, look here.

Magic and Religion

The Egyptians' knowledge and use of non-surgical treatment and herbal remedies were just part of the way that physicians would treat people who had an illness. Because Egyptians often believed that evil spirits also played a role in illness, magic and medicine would often overlap. Physicians and priests would use magic and religion during the treatment process to help drive illness away. This would often include, for example, prayers to the goddess of healing and medicine, who was known as Sekhmet. In addition, the chanting of incantations or the use of amulets and other sacred jewelry could also be recommended along with medical treatment methods.

Dentistry

Dental practices can be traced back to ancient Egypt as well. The earliest recorded reference to a dental practitioner was in 2600 B.C. in regard to a scribe of Djoser named Hesy-Re, who was the first known dentist in Memphis, Egypt. His tomb was inscribed with the phrase, "the greatest of those who deal with teeth and of physicians." Early Egyptians performed surgeries such as draining abscesses and extracting teeth. They also provided recipes to treat bad breath and for mouthwashes meant for pain relief and tooth health. Gold bridges were also found on some mummies, but it is disputed whether these were applied before or after the individual's death.

Tools and Herbs

In performing certain surgical procedures, ancient Egyptians had a number of tools at their disposal. These surgical tools included forceps, hooks, spoons, measuring rods or graduated cubits, bone saws, shears, and even drills. They used needles for stitching wounds, clamps for stopping the flow of blood, and lancets for opening veins. Knives were also a commonly used tool and were referenced in relation to procedures in both the Ebers and Edwin Smith papyri.

Herbal combinations used by ancient Egyptians are still used to help with common ailments today. Some of the herbal remedies used at the time include honey, a natural antibiotic, which was used on wounds. Aloe was used for soothing skin conditions and burns and in combination with mustard seed and juniper for providing relief for chest pain. Ancient Egyptians used thyme for relief from pain, too. Mint was an ingredient used in numerous remedies: It would help stop vomiting, and when combined with caraway, it served as a breath-freshener. Mint was also a digestive aid when mixed with juniper, garlic, and sandalwood. Herbs were used not only for treatable illness but also in the treatment of diseases for which there was no cure, such as cancer, for example.

Fun Facts

  • When ancient Egyptians performed any type of surgical procedure, they used alcohol as an anesthetic.
  • A common problem that could not be treated was malaria.
  • Animal dung, particularly that of a dog, donkey, or gazelle, was believed to ward off evil spirits and aid healing, according to the Ebers Papyrus.
  • Moldy bread and lizard blood were occasionally used as topical treatments.

Further Reading

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