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 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 papyri’, we are learning more and more about their knowledge of 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 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 anatomy, and from magicians because they weren’t associated with any particular god or temple.
The role of a lay physician wasn’t 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, ”Physicians of the body, who knows the inner juices, Priest of Aton who in the palace goes and comes and gas admission to the king.” 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 pharaohs. In wartime and on journeys anywhere within Egypt, the sick are all treated free of charge, because doctors are paid by the state and scrupulous observance of the prescriptions drawn up by great doctors of the past is incumbent on them. Diodorus Siculus2 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 is thus divided: each physician applies himself to one disease only and not more. All places abound in physicians; some are for the eyes, others for the head, others for the teeth, others for the intestines, and others for internal disorders. Herodutus3 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 treating 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 Heliopolis, they discovered gravestones of the doctors of old schools, and engraved on them were such inscriptions as “superintendent of the secrets of the 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 king’s rectum.” There was also a “keeper of the king’s right eye,” and “keeper of the king’s 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 than 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 trachomatis, 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, and honey. Fillings were made out of a combination of malachite and resin.
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 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 eel’s charges were too weak to cure some ailments so they 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 the 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, poultices, 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.4 Archaeologists have discovered many papyri, but some containing more information than others. The most famous of these is the Papyrus Ebers.
It was found by an Arab in Luxor who discovered it will 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 than 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 used within. 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….’5 This is an exert from Pierre Montalauer’s 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 the hemorrhaging 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.6 It was erected over the resting place of Pharaoh’s 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 papyruses, ancient Egyptian’s are now getting the credit they deserve for their contributions to modern medicine.
Atkinson, D.T. Magic, Myth and Medicine. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1956.
Dawson, Warren R. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. (Online) available. http://www.lri.ucsf.edu/public_html/egypt.html
Margotta, Roberto. The Story of Medicine. New York: Golden Press, 1968.
Stetter, Cornelius. The Secret Medicine of the Pharaohs: Ancient Egyptian Healing. Carol Stream: Quintessence Publishing Company, 1993.
Thorward, Jurgen. Science and Secrets of Early Medicine. Cologn: DuMont Press, 1962.
Trueman, John H., Trueman, Dawn Cline. The Enduring Past. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1982.