The Nile river is known almost universally
by historians as the cradle of medicine because it passes through the great
region of Egypt. Egypt greatly contributed to the western civilization.
Their knowledge was far superior to any previous civilization, and many
civilizations to come. One of their greatest achievements was in the field
of medicine because they replaced myth with medical fact, this laid the
foundations for modern medical practice. They discovered the cause of various
illnesses and developed a cure. They practiced both medical and spiritual
healing so the worlds of religion and science could coexist. With the discoveries
of several papyrus, we are learning more and more about their knowledge
of the human anatomy.
The literature discovered by archaeologists
dates back to over 7000 years ago. In the early Egyptian times, medicine
was practiced most often by priests, not doctors or physicians. There were
three main types of early healers, the priest physician, lay physician,
and the magician-physician. The priest physicians were ranked highest among
physicians because they practiced a combination of clinical and spiritual
medicine. The priest physicians were in such a high favor that it is most
likely they were part of the Egyptian hierarchy, and involved with the
state officials and pharaohs. It is unknown if the priest physicians ever
received medical training. They were permitted to examine patients and
participate in minor tasks. All diseases except those of the eye, were
treated by a clergy who specialized with their own rule and hierarchy known
as the Priests of Sekhmet. Gradually the physicians would gain their medical
knowledge and would combine it with their knowledge of magic to become
an effective and respected healer.
The lay physicians also practiced a combination
of clinical and spiritual healing. Unlike the priest physician, the lay
physicians were most likely trained to practice medicine. They were most
likely derived from priests who had knowledge of the anatomy, and from
magicians because they werent associated with any particular god or temple.
The role of a lay physician wasnt only open to males, unlike the priest
physicians, there are records of women physicians. Although the duties
of the lay physician are vague due to the lack of information contained
in the medical papyri, we can assume that they were closely linked to the
field of surgery because of their medical training. The last type of physician
called the magician-physician, was not trained in medicine and only used
spells to cure the ill. This signifies that although the Egyptians made
advances in the field of medicine, the aspect of magic never their medicine.
All physicians of Egypt were regarded in
high favor of the kings. They were given such titles as “Chief of all court
physicians” The nobles also used the term “body physicians.” These “body
physicians,” were permanently employed. Historians and archaeologists are
unsure of the methods of payment for these physicians, but they know that
the general physicians who went into the land were paid by natural resources
such as a gold ring or bracelet. It was a family tradition to become a
doctor. It is unsure whether the position was inherited or the fathers
just wanted to pass down their knowledge to their sons. They can come to
the conclusion that all physicians were well looked after and were a valuable
asset to all pharaoh. In wartime and on journeys anywhere within Egypt,
the sick are all treated free of charge, because doctors are paid by the
state. Court physicians had the same advantages of those who went out to
the war front. They were paid directly by the pharaoh so a wounded soldier
in battle would be able to receive free treatment.
The art of medicine was divided: each physician
applies himself to one disease only and not more. Some are for the eyes,
others for the head, others for the teeth, others for the intestines, and
others for internal disorders. In ancient Egypt, most physicians were specialists.
One physician would specialize in treating flesh wounds, while another
would specialize in treating eye infections. The larger part of the training
of physicians took place in a house of life. The house of life is a temple
devoted to treated the ill. One would only have to tell the “house of life”
of his illness and a physician who specialized in that field would visit
that person and treat the illness as best he could. At the temple of Heliopis,
they discovered gravestones of the doctors of old schools and engraved
on them were such inscriptions as “superintendent of the secrets of health
of the house of Thoth”, “the greatest of doctors”, “eye specialist to the
palace.” From hieroglyphics on the tomb of doctor Iry, we learned that
he is called “keeper of the kings rectum.” There was also a “keeper of
the kings right eye,” and “keeper of the kings left eye.”
The Egyptians were able to treat teeth
and eye problems. Doctors who specialized in the eyes were regarded extremely
high in Egyptian society and were the pride of many Pharaohs. Eye doctors
had considerable knowledge of the eye. They distinguished that there is
both an outside part and an inside part to be treated. Eye diseases in
Egypt, then and now, are more common then in any other region. Therefore
eye doctors were in great demand and kings from neighboring lands would
ask the gift of an experienced eye doctor to join their court. They discovered
a treatment for trachoma, or “Egyptian eye disease.”
Trachoma causes fifty percent of all blindness,
and is contagious. It is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomas, and
it forms tiny blisters on the conjunctiva. The eye specialists would treat
it by applying a mixture of sodium carbonate, black mascara, and red ocher.
They were able to perform surgeries on the eye where they would remove
the iris and remove a piece of rock or metal. Another specialty was the
treating of the teeth. Ancient Egyptian doctors who specialized in dental
care, are not believed to have had knowledge of dental surgery because
no evidence has been found in any written texts. But archaeological finds
show that attempts have been made.
They discovered a mandible from the Fourth
Dynasty that indicates that there was an attempt to drill a hole in one
of the teeth. Possibly the first prosthesis was found in 1929 in Giza where
two teeth were found with gold wire fixed to the teeth. Also they have
found several mummies with artificial teeth. The study of several mummies
indicates poor teeth condition. This can be attributed to the lack of nutrition,
mostly lower class citizens. In the Papyrus Ebers, they found parts of
a dental monograph titled “The Beginning of Remedies for Stronger Teeth.”
Carious teeth were treated with a mixture of ocher, flour, spelt, and honey.
Fillings were made out of a combination of malachite and resin.
The Ancient Egyptian doctors and physicians
used many types of natural resources to cure patients. In one case it was
discovered that they used the electrical charge of the Malapterusus electricus,
a close relative of the electric eel, was used to cure certain kinds of
pain. To cure the gout, the patient would step on the electric eel, then
place the other foot on a wet beach then wait until the leg is numb up
to the knee. But the electric eels charges were too week to cure some
ailments so the used the organs of some fish that produced electrical charges.
At first history believed that the first case of leeches being used for
medical purposes was in 135 AD by the Greek Nikandros. He described that
the leeches were placed on the body and would clear out blood and congested
fluids. They now know that 2,000 years earlier, this procedure was common
in Egypt. They do not know how this was done, whether they actually cut
open the vein with a knife, or used some other method.
Their remedies are not all that different
from our own. They used various kinds of pills, potions, pouttices, suppositories,
and plasters. They had the knowledge to prevent wounds and cure many types
of animal bites such as the crocodile. The doctors and physicians would
suggest moldy bread to prevent blisters, intestinal diseases, and suppurating
wounds. They developed a cure for the cough that goes as follows: pieces
of plant and mineral substances should be heated on hot stones. A pot with
a hole bored into it should be put on top of this and a pipe should be
put into the hole. The patient must “swallow” the herbal steam seven times.
And because the mouth dries out, it should be rinsed out with oil.
Archaeologists have discovered many papyrus,
but some containing more information then others. The most famous of these
is the Papyrus Ebers. It was found by an Arab in Luxor who discovered it
while excavating a tomb. He demanded a large sum of money for the purchase,
so with the financial support of a friend, George Ebers purchased the Papyrus.
They dated back to the period between 1553-1550 BC. It was a collection
of texts from the Old Empire that gave instructions on how to cure wounds,
fractures, dislocations, and many other types of illnesses. They described
how to treat fractures, they would use splints bound with bandages. When
the Papyrus Ebers was written, Egypt was at its highest medical achievement.
Historians can come to the conclusion that the papyrus belonged to the
Pharaoh Amenhotep (1557-1501 BC) . It is the most accurate account of early
Egyptian medicine ever written. At this time medicine was much freer of
magic then before. It is used as the founding book of knowledge for ancient
Egyptian medicine. Much of the contents of the papyrus, deal with constipation,
giving several effective cures that in some parts of the world, are still
used today. The Papyrus Ebers consisted of 108 columns divided into forty-five
groups. The second group for example would describe various kinds of laxatives,
while group four describes stomach ailments. The texts contained in the
Papyrus Ebers are difficult to understand, and there are many unknown terms
One of the most famous ancient doctors
is Imhotep. He was a great privilege to have as a Pharaoh. He worked in
the court of the pharaoh Khasekhem. When he was finished, he turned to
the speechless women and said, on these wounds, compresses of fresh meat
must be applied and new ones must be reapplied five times daily. After
this, the patient should drink milk mixed with beef gall bladder…. This
is an exert from Pierre Montalauers book about Imhotep. It refers to the
ordeal of the birth of the great Pharaoh Djoser. After the deliverance,
the queen of the Upper Egyptian capital, received a tear of the perineum.
Imhotep quickly bandaged and stitched the wound. The exert is Imhotep
giving the queen instructions to follow in order to let the wound heal
properly. He saved the queen but around the same time his wife died giving
birth to his son. He then locked himself in with his wife for forty days
to mummify her. This was the first recorded process of mummification known.
He committed a large part of his life to Djoser the future Pharaoh. He
played a major role in the court, was vizier to his king , he was a great
architect and astrologist. In some legends it says that he ended the seven
year drought by creating an elaborate system of irrigation, organizing
fisheries, and he also preserved food. Imhotep built the first pyramid
in the world, the step mastaba of Saqara. It was erected over the resting
place of Pharaohs wife who was buried in the Nile Delta.
It is now known that Egyptian medicine
contributed greatly to modern medicine. Many of the therapies used today
are similar to those used in ancient Egyptian times such as the method
of treating a fractured bone. They were the first to use electrotherapy
to cure pain, and also have an understanding of what happened. The first
ever mummification was in Egypt and the process was used for centuries
to come by all Egyptian peoples. With the discoveries of more and more
papyrus, ancient Egyptians are now getting the credit they deserve for
their contributions to modern medicine. Bibliography Atkinson, D.T. Magic,
Myth and Medicine. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1956.
Dawson, Warren R. Ancient Egyptian
Medicine. The Story of Medicine. New York: Golden Press, 1968.
Stetter, Cornelius. The Secret Medicine
Pharaohs: Ancient Egyptian Healing.
Stream: Quintessence Publishing