Medicine in Ancient Egypt

People sometimes say that the ancient Egyptian civilization endured without much change for more than three thousand years. This is only partially true because, in fact, Egyptian ways of life, philosophy, religion, language, and art changed considerably over time. However, the ancient Egyptian culture retained its identity and general character to a remarkable degree over the course of its history: a situation due in part to Egypt’s favorable and secure location.

Essentially a river oasis, the country was bordered by deserts to the west and east, by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and by the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan in the south.

Situated in the northeastern corner of Africa, Egypt was a center for trade routes to and from western Asia, the Mediterranean, and central Africa. Ancient Egyptian medicine is the medicine that was commonly practiced in Ancient Egypt from circa 3300BC until Persian invasion of 525 BC. The medicine was highly advanced for the time and included surgery, setting of bones and extensive set of Pharmacopoeia.

Remedies were sometimes characterized by magical incantations and dubious ingredients, often had a rational basis. Medical texts specified specific steps of examination, diagnosis, prognosis and treatments that were rational and appropriate. The practices of Egyptian physicians ranged from embalming, to faith healing to surgery, and autopsy. There was no separation of Physician, Priest and Magician in Egypt. Healing was an art that was addressed on many levels during ancient Egyptian period Modern medicine owes much to the Ancient Egyptians. Historians divide the history of

Ancient Egypt ancient Egypt into: Prehistory (up to ca.

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3100 B. C. ), the Archaic Period (ca. 3100- 2650 B. C. ) the Old Kingdom (ca. 2650-2150 B. C. ), the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2040-1640 B. C. ), the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 B. C. ), the Late Period (ca. 712-332 B. C. ), and the Ptolemaic (Hellenistic) and Roman Periods (332 B. C. -A. D. 395). The main sources of information about ancient Egyptian medicine were writings from antiquity until 19th century as in Odyssey (800B. C), observations recorded by Greek historian Herodotus (440BC), writings of Pliny the Elder.

The father of modern medicine Hippocrates (ca 460BC-370BC), Herophilos (ca335-280 BC) Erasistratus (ca 310 BC-250BC, who founded a school of anatomy) and Galen studied at the temple of Amenhotep and acknoledged the contribution of ancient Egyptian medicine to Greek medicine. Much of what we now know of Egyptian medicine and the work of the physicians come from a variety of medical documents written by physician-priests. These documents, known as papyrus are the first known records of medical practice.

The various papyrus documents that have been recovered and translated show us that the Egyptians had developed an understanding of medicine. The evidence provided by these early medical training manuals is quite remarkable. They show quite clearly that the Egyptians had identified and developed cures for a wide range of diseases, many of which cures are still in use today. Such was the extent of Egyptian knowledge that there are records of over 800 medical procedures and remedies making use of over 600 drugs and a vast array of surgical tools. A few papyri have survived, from which we can learn about Egyptian medicine:

The Edwin Smith Papyrus describing surgical diagnosis and treatments: opens with eight texts concerning head wounds, followed by nineteen treatments of wounds to the face, six descriptions of how to deal with injuries to throat and neck, five dealing with collar-bones and Ancient Egypt arms, and seven with chest complaints. Some important notions concerning the nervous system originated with the Egyptians, a word for brain is used here for the first time in any written language: “the membrane enveloping his brain, so that it breaks open his fluid in the interior of his head” (The Edwin Smith papyrus, case6).

Acting conservatively, they knew how to treat injuries to the brain without killing the patient, but on the whole their understanding of the brain and its functions was superficial: they considered thinking to be a function of the heart. Their dissection of bodies during mummification seems not to have added greatly to their knowledge of the inner workings of the human body, possibly because mummifiers and physicians did not move in the same circles.

The Ebers Papyrus on ophthalmology, diseases of the digestive system, the head, the skin and specific maladies like aAa, which some think may have been a precursor of AIDS and others consider to have been a disease of the urinary tract. Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, the Berlin Medical papyrus, the London Medical Papyrus, the Hearst medical papyrus and the Demotic magical Papyrus of London and Leiden: contains a number of spells for treating physical ailments, also give extensive information about the medicine during ancient Egypt.

The cause of diseases, Anatomy, Physiology and practices The human body was believed to be born in a healthy state, and could not fall ill or die except through the influence of a foreign agent. In case of wounds or intestinal worms, that agent was visible and the treatment prescribed was hence rational. As they were not aware of microbiology, internal diseases were thought to be due to an occult force attributed to evil gods, a divine punishment or magical procedures. The physician was obliged to neutralize this evil Ancient Egypt

before turning into actual treatment. The use of Autopsy came through the extensive embalming practices of the Egyptians, as it was not unlikely for an embalmer to examine the body for a cause of the illness which killed it. The use of surgery also evolved from a knowledge of the basic anatomy and embalming practices of the Egyptians. From such careful observations made by the early medical practitioners of Egypt, healing practices began to center upon both the religious rituals and the lives of the ancient Egyptians.

The prescription for a healthy life, which was always given by a member of the priestly caste, meant that an individual undertook the stringent and regular purification rituals, and maintained their dietary restrictions against raw fish and other animals considered unclean to eat. In addition to a purified lifestyle, it was not uncommon for the Egyptians to undergo dream analysis to find a cure or cause for illness, as well as to ask for a priest to aid them with magic, this example obviously portrays that religious magical rites and purificatory rites were intertwined in the healing process as well as in creating a proper lifestyle.

The practice of medicine was fairly advanced in Ancient Egypt, with Egyptian physicians having a wide and excellent reputation. Sovereigns from foreign lands have frequently appealed to pharaohs to send them their physicians. A wall painting in a Thebean grave of the 18th dynasty (1400 BC) depicts “Nebamun”, scribe and physician of the king, receiving a Syrian prince paying him for his services in gifts. According to Herodotus, King Cyrus of Persia has requested Amasis (Ahmose II of the 26th dynasty, 560 BC) to send him the most skilful of all the Egyptian eye-doctors.

Egyptian physicians recognized the heart as the source of blood vessels. They were aware that the blood vessels were hollow, having a mouth which opens to absorb medications, Ancient Egypt eliminate waste elements, distribute air and body secretions and excretions, in confusion between blood vessels and other passages, as ureters. The physiology of blood circulation was demonstrated in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, together with its relation to the heart, as well as awareness of the importance of the pulse.

They also knew that blood supply runs from the heart to all organs of the body. “There are vessels in him for every part of the body”. “It speaks forth in the vessels of every body part” (Edwin Smith Papyrus) However, their inability to distinguish between blood vessels, nerves, tendons and channels has limited their full understanding of the physiology of circulation. The diseases: The common cold plagued the ancient Egyptians as it still does us today, and their remedy, the milk of a mother who has given birth to a boy, was probably as effective as anything we have got today.

Insect, especially scorpion bites or snake bites, both very frequent in Egypt, were treated by magicians, as there appears to have been no specific balm or ointment used, and as we have records of many spells, written on papyri and magical charms devoted to these two occurrences. Bilharziasis (schistosomiasis) – a common disease in a country flooded for months every year – a common cause of anemia, female infertility, a debilitating loss of resistance to other diseases and subsequent death.

The Ebers Papyrus addresses some of the symptoms of the disease and in two columns discusses treatment and prevention of bleeding in the urinal tract (haematuria). The Hearst Papyrus cites antimony disulfide as a remedy. Insect borne diseases like malaria and trachoma were endemic; plagues spread along the trade routes and a number of yadet renpet epidemics reported in Egyptian documents are thought by some to Ancient Egypt have been outbreaks of bubonic plague.

Smallpox, measles, and cholera were easily propagated in the relatively densely populated Nile valley, where practically the whole population lived within a narrow strip of land. Silicosis of the lungs, the result of breathing in airborne sand particles, was a frequent cause of death, as was pneumonia. The various kinds of malignant tumors were almost as frequent then as they are nowadays in comparable age and gender groups. Eye infections are a common complaint in Africa. In ancient Egypt they were at least in part prevented by the application of bactericidal eye paint.

The ingredients of some of the remedies may not have been as difficult to come by in a civilization where the brain was removed in little bits from the skull during mummification as it would be in a modern western country. ‘Prescription for the eye, to be used for all diseases which occur in this organ: Human brain, divide into its two halves, mix one half with honey, smear on the eye in the evening, dry the other half, mash, sift, smear on the eye in the morning’(Ebers Papyrus). Open wounds were often treated with honey. But sometimes lockjaw set in.

When a tetanus infection was recognized, physicians knew they were powerless against this affliction. Dietary Deficiencies: A restricted diet caused or aggravated a number of ailments; some with fatal outcome . There were times when malnutrition was widespread. Growth of the population was therefore often stunted. Because of vitamin and other deficiencies, dental abrasion, and bad mouth hygiene, caries and abscesses were the lot of many. Herbal medicines: Herbs played a major part in Egyptian medicine. The plant medicines mentioned in the Ebers papyrus include opium, cannabis, myrrh, frankincense, fennel, cassia,

Ancient Egypt senna, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe, linseed and castor oil. Cloves of garlic have been found in Egyptian burial sites. Egyptians thought garlic and onions aided endurance, and consumed large quantities of them. Raw garlic was routinely given to asthmatics and to those suffering with bronchial-pulmonary complaints. Coriander (C. Sativum) was considered to have cooling, stimulant, carminative and digestive properties. Cumin (Cumin cyminum) is an umbelliferous herb indigenous to Egypt. The seeds were considered to be a stimulant and effective against flatulence.

Cumin powder mixed with some wheat flour as a binder and a little water was applied to relieve the pain of any aching or arthritic joints. Tape worms, the snakes in the belly, were dealt with by an infusion of pomegranate root in water, which was strained and drunk. Ulcers were treated with yeast, as were stomach ailments. Some of the medicines were made from plant materials imported from abroad. Mandrake, introduced from Canaan and grown locally since the New Kingdom, was thought to be an aphrodisiac and, mixed with alcohol, induced unconsciousness. Oil of fir, an antiseptic, originated in the Levant.

The Persian henna was grown in Egypt since the Middle Kingdom, and – if identical with henu mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus – was used against hair loss. They treated catarrh with aloe which came from eastern Africa. Frankincense, containing tetrahydrocannabinol and used like hashish as pain killer, was imported from Punt. Animal products and minerals were used too. Honey and grease formed part of many wound treatments, mother’s milk was occasionally given against viral diseases like the common cold, fresh meat laid on open wounds and sprains, and animal dung was thought to be effective at times.

Malachite used as an eye-liner also had therapeutic value. In a country where eye Ancient Egypt infections were endemic, the effects of its germicidal qualities were appreciated even if the reasons for its effectiveness were not understood. Pregnancy and childbirth: Fertility was important to the Egyptians and the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus includes a number of tests for it. At the same time there seems to have existed the need for planning pregnancies. Silphium grown in Cyrene was famous for many medical qualities, including its contraceptive properties.

They also devised the first known pregnancy test: Means for knowing if a woman will give birth or will not give birth: (Put) some barley and some wheat (into two bags of cloth) which the woman will moisten with her urine every day, equally barley and grain in the two bags. If both the barley and the wheat sprout she will give birth. If (only) the barley germinates it will be a boy, if it is the wheat which alone germinates it will be a girl. If neither germinates she will not give birth (Berlin papyrus 3. 038)

The Ebers papyrus mentions two remedies which “cause all to come out which is in the stomach of a woman”, possibly referring to inducing a miscarriage. Birth itself was dangerous both to the mother and the baby. Infant mortality was high, probably around 30 percent, and complications and child bed fever killed many women. Surgery: At Saqqara there is the tomb of Ankh-Mahor, known as The Tomb of the Physician. In one of the wall pictures two men are having their extremities treated variously explained as manicure, massage or surgery.

Another picture shows the performance of a circumcision of adolescents (the only instance of a depiction of this procedure) with the hieroglyphs saying The ointment is used to make it acceptable, which has been interpreted as meaning that a local – Ancient Egypt anesthetic was being used, though this reading is, as happens often in such inscriptions, doubtful. Poppies are occasionally mentioned in Egyptian medical literature and the physicians had a pretty good idea of their properties. Boys destined for priesthood were circumcised as part of the initial ritual cleansing, which also included the shaving of the whole body.

The practice of circumcision became more universal during the Late Period, perhaps as part of a rite of passage. Prostheses and cosmetics: Prostheses were generally of a cosmetic character, such as an artificial toe made of cartonnage at the British Museum, or added as a preparation for afterlife such as a forearm on a mummy in Arlington Museum (England) and an artificial penis and feet on another mummy in the Manchester Museum . Wooden big toe prosthesis has also been found in a fifty to sixty year old woman, after her big toe had been amputated, possibly because of gangrene.

A glass eye with a white eyeball and a black pupil, but lacking an iris, was probably inserted into the empty eye socket of a mummy rather than used by a living person. Physicians performed other cosmetic tasks as well. Apart from prescribing lotions, salves and unguents for skin care, they also produced remedies against the loss of hair and graying, which was combated by an ointment made with blood from the horn of a black bull. Hair loss was hoped to be stopped by a mixture of honey and fats from crocodiles, lions, hippos, cats, snakes, and ibex.

Dentistry: As their diet included much abrasive material (sand and small stone particles from grinding the corn) the teeth of the ancient Egyptians were generally in a very poor state. Caries and the destruction of the enamel caused the loss of teeth at an early age and often killed as well. Caries were sometimes treated by fillings made of resin and chrysocolla, a greenish mineral containing copper. Swollen gums were treated with a concoction of cumin, incense and Ancient Egypt onion. Opium might be given against severe pain.

At times holes were drilled into the jawbone in order to drain abscesses. But extraction of teeth, which might have saved the lives of many a patient, was rarely if ever practiced. The profession of dental physician seems to have existed since the early third millennium: Hesi-re is the first known Doctor of the Tooth. Physicians: The ancient Egyptian word for doctor is swnw. Hesi-re was the earliest recorded physician and the lady Peseshet (2400BC) may be the first recorded female doctor. Most famous of the Egyptian physicians is Imhotep, who is also renowned for his role as a Pyramid designer.

Imhotep used a variety of methods to heal patients but based much of their practice upon religious belief. It was common for different priests to act as physicians for different parts of the body, in much the same way that doctors specialize now, as they believed that different gods governed different sectors of the human body. Medical institutions were known to have established in ancient Egypt since as early as the 1st dynasty (3100- 2600BC) and by 19th dynasty (1550-1070 BC) their employees enjoyed benefits like medical insurance, pensions and sick leave and they worked 8hours a day.

Magic and religion: Magic and religion were part of everyday life in ancient Egypt and Gods and demons were thought to be responsible for many illness. So often the treatments involved a supernatural element: the first attempt was an appeal to a deity. Priests and magicians were called on to treat the disease instead or in addition to a physician. Physicians often used incantations and magical ingredients as a part of the treatment and many medicines apparently lacked active ingredients.

The wider spread use belief in magic and religion may have contributed to a powerful placebo effect. The impact of the magic is seen in the selection of remedies or ingredients for them. Depiction of a medical kit: 1) knives, 2) drill, 3) saw, 4) forceps or pincers, 5) censer, 6) hooks, 70 bags tied with string,(8, 10) beaked vessel, 11) vase with burning incense, 12) Horus eyes, 13) scales, 14) pot with flowers of Upper and Lowed Egypt, 15) pot on pedestal, 16) graduated cubit or papyrus scroll with out side knot ( or a case holding reed scalpels), 17) shears, 18) spoons.

Conclusion: The people of Ancient Egypt made several major medical discoveries and began treating diseases in a physical manner alongside older spiritual cures. Though much of the advancement in medical knowledge and practice was a side effect of religious ceremonies the effect on public health and knowledge of the human body was tremendous. Fuelled by a desire to enter the afterlife Egyptian knowledge of the workings of the body encompassed new areas of medicine ranging from a basic understanding of anatomy to the introduction of some surgical skills. Ancient Egypt References: 1.

Allen, Thomas George ;1936, Egyptian Stelae, Field Museum of Natural History: Anthropological Series; Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Chicago 2. Breasted, J. H. (1906) Ancient Records of Egypt 3. Breasted, J. H. (1930) The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (University of Chicago Press: University of Chicago,) 4. Brian Brown (ed. ) (1923); The Wisdom of the Egyptians. New York: Brentano’s 5. Buikstra, J. E. ; Baker, B. J. ; Cook, D. C. (1993) “What Disease Plagues the Ancient Egyptians? A Century of Controversy Considered,” In Biological Anthropology and the Study of Ancient Egypt (eds. ) W,V. Davies and R.

Walter (British Museum Press: London,) 6. Hurry, Jamieson, B. (1926) ; Imhotep, Oxford University Press 7. Nunn, J. F. (1996) Ancient Egyptian Medicine (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman,) 8. Sandison, A. T. ( 1980) “Diseases in Ancient Egypt,” in Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures (eds. ) Aiden and Eve Cockburn (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 9. Sameh M. Arab, MDMEDICINE IN ANCIENT EGYPT 10. Scarre, Christopher; Fagan, M. Brian; 1997, Ancient Civilizations, Longman 11. http://www. mic. ki. se/Egypt. html 12. http://nefertiti. iwebland. com/timelines/topics/medicine. htm

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Medicine in Ancient Egypt. (2018, Aug 28). Retrieved from

Medicine in Ancient Egypt
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