In this essay, we shall be comparing the progress of medicine in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. We will explore the different factors contributing to the medical development of each civilisation and how they formed the basis for modern medical practice.
Egypt and Greece were agricultural empires. Egypt was one of the first to settle and farm the Nile. Good harvests from the rich silt meant that Egypt had enough food to trade with other Empires, like India, China, Arabia, Africa and around the Mediterranean. Trade (along with bringing back great wealth) brought back new ideas, among which were new herbs and treatments. Similarly, Greece was a trading nation, leading to communication in and between nations. Communication was vital for the progress of medicine because it allowed ideas to be shared between many different countries.
The Egyptians were so successful with farming and trade that the land owners became very wealthy. Likewise, the Greeks had a wealthy upper class. This new class could afford to pay for health care by doctors, who were paid a great deal for their knowledge. They spent their lives trying to further their understanding of medicine, probably because the better they were, the more they got paid. So money plays a large part in the progress of medicine.
The rich could afford to employ metal workers, to make jewellery and tools. These craftsmen could also make bronze instruments for doctors and physicians, much better than any tools before. The rich Greeks could also do this, but, the invention of iron and steel meant that the Greeks could do more with their tools as they were stronger. This must have helped the progression of practical medicine.
Although the rich in both Egypt and Greece had doctors and were generally in good health (more so in Greece than Egypt). Both empires also had those that had virtually no medical care. Slaves, that were part of each civilisation, were on the most part in very poor health. Doctors wouldn’t treat them because they couldn’t pay, and normally they couldn’t seek out other knowledgeable people because their movement was restricted. Slaves are an extreme example, the point being that even though the rich in both countries were getting healthier, in Egypt, the general population didn’t benefit because they couldn’t afford the treatment, this got only marginally better with the Greeks.
Both empires were affected by war. Doctors would join, becoming army physicians or surgeons and gaining practical field knowledge. Battles were places for trying theories and treatments, many procedures must have been invented, innovated or perfected there. One being amputation. A mixture of better tools due to the invention of iron/steel and trial and error meant the Greeks could amputate limbs with even the smallest chance of survival, where it was almost totally unknown for someone to survive an amputation, purposeful or not.
Specialist male doctors, priests and mothers/wives were all healers in both Egypt and Greece. Mothers/wives would take care of the day-to-day health of the family, the doctors charged high amounts to treat people. And the priests offered religious or supernatural treatments.
The Egyptians though had female doctors, like Pesehet, 2649-2150BC ‘Lady Overseer of Lady Physicians’. The Greeks didn’t have female doctors, saying; “No slave or woman should learn the science of medicine.” This was regression, because half the population was excluded from the advance of medicine.
Religion was both good and bad for the progression of medicine in Egypt and Greece. In Egypt, their faith was a strong belief in the need of your body in the afterlife. This led to the process of embalming. They would take various organs (such as the heart, liver and brain) out of the body and treat everything with herbs and spices, giving them a basic knowledge of anatomy. But the dissection of humans was disallowed in Both Greece and Egypt. In order for the Greeks to get knowledge of anatomy, they travelled to Alexandria (In Egypt, named after Alexander the Great when he conquered Egypt) where dissection was allowed.
In both ages gods were said to cause and cure plagues and be in control of the weather. The Egyptians believed in good and evil spirits, wearing charms and using spells to keep away disease, give luck or find love. The Greeks had a God called Asclepius, god of healing. Temples dedicated to him were called Asclepions. These complexes had spacious, clean buildings, a stadium, gymnasium, baths and an Abaton where patients slept in the hopes that Asclepius and his daughters, Panacea and Hygeia would visit them and heal them. Because the Asclepion was such a comparatively clean and healthy place, these people often did get better and a miracle would be claimed. It was about this time that the Greeks said it was important to have a good diet and get exercise. In my opinion, these are linked.
Religion did not cause medical knowledge to regress, in some cases, such as that of Egyptian embalming, it in fact helped medical knowledge progress. But on the most part, it held back progression as religious ideas often conflicted with scientific and medical theories.
The Egyptians were among the first civilisations to look at their surroundings for answers about things they did not understand, instead of looking to the gods for any explanations they might have needed. The largest life-giving source in Egypt was the Nile. The farms on the Nile’s flood plane used irrigation to take the water from the river over long distances to feed a large amount of land. If one of these channels got blocked, then the water could not reach a certain bit of land and the crop there would fail if the channel was left blocked. They applied this theory to humans. They believed that the heart was the most important organ in the body, which pumped air and water (carried by the blood) through around 40 channels to every part of the body. They believed that rotting food in the bowels gave off gasses that travelled along the channels, and sometimes blocked them, causing disease in different parts of the body. This was a big step forward compared to prehistoric times, as this was a natural cause for disease, not spiritual.
In a similar way, the Greeks were keen observers of nature and had a natural cause for disease. They believed in the 4 humours which were; phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile. They believed if these humours remained balanced then the person would be healthy. But if the humours became unbalanced then the person would become ill.
Along with the Theory of the 4 humours, came a belief in good diet, exercise and rest when ill, with the belief that this would keep the humours in balance.
This tied in perfectly with the Greeks other observations: The 4 elements of earth, fire, air and water. The 4 seasons of autumn, summer, spring and winter. If you had a cold, then you had too much phlegm, phlegm watery and colds often occurred in winter. This seemed to be too much of a coincidence for the Greeks.
The Greeks went to Alexandria to dissect human cadavers, this led to discovering for the first time that the brain controlled the body, this was very important as now the brain could be given the attention it needed in medicine.
The theory of the 4 humours was very important. On it, many treatments were based, and no one could come up with a better theory on how the body worked for over a 1000 years. Comparing the two theories, the Egyptian channels and the Greek 4 humours. I would say that it is hard to tell which is more important. As we now know they were both incorrect, yet still, both on the same lines of natural explanation. It seems to me that the Greeks theories show progression on the Egyptian theories. It is linked in with a complex theory; the 4 humours, 4 seasons, 4 elements. It led to more effective treatments such as purging. It led to good ideas such as healthy diet and exercise, and it influenced the way people thought about medicine until over 1000 years later.
Egyptians could perform rudimentary surgery, such as setting broken bones. The Greeks made some progress, in that they could perform amputation and that they had better instruments due to the invention of iron and steel.
Both civilisations had new uses of herbs, from careful observation of their environment and from trade with other countries.
The Greeks believed in observation of a patient; examining all excretions in order to diagnose the illness and give a prognosis. Through more careful observation, the Greek doctor could provide better treatment for his patient. The Egyptians did not do this.
In Egypt, common treatments involved a mixture of religious and practical medicine. For instance:
“Cure for Cataracts:
Mix brain-of-tortoise with honey. Place on the eye and say:
There is a shouting in the southern sky in darkness, there is an uproar in the northern sky, the Hall of Pillars falls into the waters. The crew of the sun god bent their oars so that the heads at his side fall into the water, who leads hither and what he finds? I lead forth what I find. I lead forth your heads. I lift up your necks. I fasten what has been cut from you in its place. I lead you forth to drive away the god of Fevers and all possible deadly arts.”
(Taken from the Ebers Papyrus).
The Greeks relied much less on religious cures and more on the practical. They used wine and vinegar as basic antiseptics, where the Egyptians used honey, or raw meat.
Again the Greeks seem to be more advanced than the Egyptians, with more advanced/practical treatments.
The Egyptians invented a from of paper called papyrus made from reeds. They also innovated a quicker form of writing called hieroglyphics. These, together with their wide trade system, meant that communication was easier than it ever had been before. Plus information could be passed easily between generations. This aided the progression of medicine a great deal as physicians, surgeons and doctors could share knowledge easily over large distances. Examples of these are the Ebers and Smith Papyri.
The Ebers papyrus is roughly 3600 years old, the Smith papyrus being written about 100 years before. They are medical papyri, giving us an invaluable insight into the medicine of the time. If now, we can still gain knowledge from Egyptian papyri, then it must have also been of great use at the time.
The Greeks took learning very seriously, with schools and universities for maths, astronomy, philosophy and healing. Their manner of studying their environment was an innovation in itself and their Asclepions could be considered as the first hospitals.
Although the Greeks were more progressed with technology than the Egyptians, I believe the Egyptians made more progress, with the Greeks following on after them, and expanding the knowledge.
Imhotep was the earliest record physician in Egypt, wazir to king Zoser who founded the Third Dynasty. He was an astronomer, physician and an architect that may well have built the first pyramid of Saqqara. After his death he was worshiped as a hero, a blameless physician and much later as the god of medicine “The prototype of Asclepius.” Although we don’t know much more about him, the Egyptians certainly liked him enough that he became a god, and it is interesting to see how Egyptian ideas, even of a singular person can be passed on to later civilisations such as Greece, and therefore Rome.
Hippocrates was one of the most important thinkers of all time, born in Greece around 460BC. In the field of medicine, he wrote many books on treatments and theories of the time, he developed the idea of humours, although this was wrong, it affected the way people were treated for centuries. He encouraged people to look for natural explanations for illness and other things, rather than religious ones and he championed the use of observing and recording symptoms with patients to aid diagnosis and prognosis. Ultimately his influence was to affect the way medicine was practised for thousands of years to come – up to the present day.
Overall the Greeks made more medical progress than the Egyptians. When you compare different aspects of medicine between the two civilisations they each have made more progress than the other in certain areas. The Egyptians made greater progress in the role of healers (specifically women), and with technology, and the Greeks made greater progress in their economy, theories, treatments and the way religion affected medicine advancement.
The Egyptians were the first to begin medical theorising because they were the first major, organised, civilisation. They revolutionised prehistoric medical thinking and provided a basis for future medical progress. They began with very poor medical knowledge and ended with relatively effective treatments.
The Greeks began with some of the Egyptian knowledge and developed some very important theories which led to better treatment and upon which the basis of modern scientific thinking was built. Perhaps if they hadn’t excluded women from medical practice, their progress would have been even greater.