Ancient Egyptian medicine

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File:Edwin Smith Papyrus v2.jpg
The Edwin Smith papyrus documents ancient Egyptian medicine (perhaps as old as 2,600 BCE), including the diagnosis and treatment of injuries.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine refers to the practices of healing common in Ancient Egypt from circa 3300 BC until the Persian invasion of 525 BC. This medicine was highly advanced for the time, and included simple, non-invasive surgery, setting of bones and an extensive set of pharmacopoeia and magical spells. While ancient Egyptian remedies are often characterized in modern culture by magical incantations and dubious ingredients, research in Biomedical Egyptology shows they were often effective and sixty-seven percent of the known formulae complied with the 1973 British Pharmaceutical Codex, aside from sterilization.[1] Medical texts specified specific steps of examination, diagnosis, prognosis and treatments that were often rational and appropriate.

Sources of information

Ebers Papyrus treatment for cancer: recounting a "tumor against the god Xenus", it recommends "do thou nothing there against"

Until the 19th century, the main sources of information about ancient Egyptian medicine were writings from later in antiquity. Homer c. 800 BC remarked in the Odyssey: "In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind" and "the Egyptians were skilled in medicine more than any other art".[1] The Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt around 440 BC and wrote extensively of his observations of their medicinal practices. Pliny the Elder also wrote favorably of them in historical review. Hippocrates (the "father of medicine"), Herophilos, Erasistratus and later Galen studied at the temple of Amenhotep, and acknowledged the contribution of ancient Egyptian medicine to Greek medicine.

In 1822, the translation of the Rosetta stone finally allowed the translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions and papyri, including many related to medical matters. The resultant interest in Egyptology in the 19th century led to the discovery of several sets of extensive ancient medical documents, including the Ebers papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Hearst Papyrus and others dating back as far as 3000 BC. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a textbook on surgery and details anatomical observations and the "examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis" of numerous ailments.[2] It was probably written around 1600 BC, but is regarded as a copy of several earlier texts. Medical information in it dates from as early as 3000 BC[3]. Imhotep in the 3rd dynasty is credited as the original author of the papyrus text, and founder of ancient Egyptian medicine. The earliest known surgery was performed in Egypt around 2750 BC (see surgery).

The Ebers papyrus (c. 1550 BC) is full of incantations and foul applications meant to turn away disease-causing demons, and also includes 877 prescriptions. [2] It may also contain the earliest documented awareness of tumors, if the poorly understood ancient medical terminology has been correctly interpreted. Other information comes from the images that often adorn the walls of Egyptian tombs and the translation of the accompanying inscriptions. The tomb of Ankh-ma-hor of the 6th Dynasty (circa 2200 BC) has what looks like a detailed rendering of a ceremonial circumcision. Advances in modern medical technology also contributed to the understanding of ancient Egyptian medicine. Paleopathologists were able to use X-Rays and later CAT Scans to view the bones and organs of mummies. Electron microscopes, mass spectrometry and various forensic techniques allowed scientists unique glimpses of the state of health in Egypt 4000 years ago.


File:Ancient Egyptian medical instruments.jpg
Ancient Egyptian medical instruments depicted in a Ptolemaic period inscription on the temple at Kom Ombo.

Medical knowledge in ancient Egypt had an excellent reputation, and rulers of other empires would ask the Egyptian pharaoh to send them their best physician to treat their loved ones [3]. Egyptians had some knowledge of human anatomy, even though they never dissected the body. For example, in the classic mummification process, they knew how to insert a long hooked implement through a nostril, breaking the thin bone of the brain case and remove the brain. Egyptian physicians also were aware of the importance of the pulse, and of a connection between pulse and heart. The author of the Smith Papyrus even had a vague idea of a cardiac system, although not of blood circulation and he was unable, or deemed it unimportant, to distinguish between blood vessels, tendons, and nerves. They developed their theory of "channels" that carried air, water and blood to the body by observing the River Nile; if it became blocked, crops became unhealthy and they applied this theory to the body. If a person was unwell, they would use laxatives to unblock the "channels".[4]

Quite a few medical practices were effective, such as many of the surgical procedures given in the Edwin Smith papyrus. Mostly, the physicians' advice for staying healthy was to wash and shave the body, including under the arms, and this may have prevented infections. They also advised patients to look after their diet, and avoid foods such as raw fish or other animals considered to be unclean.

Some practices were ineffective or harmful. Michael D. Parkins says that 72% of 260 medical prescriptions in the Hearst Papyrus had no known curative elements [5], and many contained animal dung which contains products of fermentation and moulds, some of them having curative properties,[4], but also bacteria posing a grave threat of infection. Being unable to distinguish between the original infection and the unwholesome effects of the faeces treatment, they may have been impressed by the few cases when it improved the patient's condition.

Magic and religion

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

The widespread belief in magic and religion may have contributed to a powerful placebo effect; that is, the perceived validity of the cure may have contributed to its effectiveness. The impact of the emphasis on magic is seen in the selection of remedies or ingredients for them. Ingredients were sometimes selected seemingly because they were derived from a substance, plant or animal that had characteristics which in some way corresponded to the symptoms of the patient. This is known as the principle of simila similibus ("similar with similar") and is found throughout the history of medicine up to the modern practice of homeopathy. Thus an ostrich egg is included in the treatment of a broken skull, and an amulet portraying a hedgehog might be used against baldness.

Amulets in general were very popularly worn for many magical purposes. Health related amulets are classified as homeopoetic, phylactic and theophoric. Homeopoetic amulets portray an animal or part animal from which the wearer hopes to assimilate positive attributes like strength or speed. Phylactic amulates protected against harmful gods and demons. The famous Eye of Horus was often used on a phylactic amulet. Theophoric amulets represented Egyptian gods; one represented the girdle of Isis and was intended to stem the flow of blood at miscarriage.

Doctors and other healers

This wood and leather prosthetic toe was used by an amputee to facilitate walking

The ancient Egyptian word for doctor is "swnw". There is a long history of swnw in ancient Egypt. The earliest recorded physician in the world is also credited to ancient Egypt: Hesyre, “Chief of Dentists and Physicians” for King Djoser in the 27th century BC.[5] The lady Peseshet (2400 BC) may be the first recorded female doctor: she was possibly the mother of Akhethotep, and on a stela dedicated to her in his tomb she is referred to as imy-r swnwt, which has been translated as “Lady Overseer of the Lady Physicians” (swnwt is the feminine of swnw).

There were many ranks and specializations in medicine. Royalty had their own swnw, even their own specialists. There were inspectors of doctors, overseers and chief doctors. Known ancient Egyptian specialists are ophthalmologist, gastroenterologist, proctologist, dentist, "doctor who supervises butchers" and an unspecified "inspector of liquids". The ancient Egyptian term for proctologist, neru phuyt, literally translates as "shepherd of the anus".

Medical institutions, so called Houses of Life, are known to have been established in ancient Egypt since as early as the 1st Dynasty. By the time of the 19th Dynasty their employees enjoyed such benefits as medical insurance, pensions and sick leave [6].


  1. Pain, Stephanie. (2007). "The Pharaohs' Pharmacists." New Scientist. 15 December, 2007, pp. 41-43.
  2. Pain, Stephanie. (2007). "The pharaohs' pharmacists." New Scientist. 15 December, 2007, p. 43.
  3. A History of Medicine by Plinio Prioreschi, Horatius Print 1996, p.257f.
  4., Theory of blocked channels
  5. Parkins, Pharmacological Practices of Ancient Egypt in Dr. W. A. Whitelaw, The Proceedings of the 10th Annual History of Medicine Days, University of Calgary 2001


  • Ancient Egyptian Medicine, John F. Nunn, 1996
  • The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A medical History of Humanity, Roy Porter, 1997
  • A History of Medicine, Lois N. Magner, 1992
  • Medicine in the Days of the Pharaohs, Bruno Halioua, Bernard Ziskind, M. B. DeBevoise (Translator), 200
  • Pharmacological practices of ancient Egypt], Michael D. Parkins, 10th Annual Proceedings of the History of Medicine Days, 2001
  • A comparative study of urban and rural tetanus in adults, Mamtani R, Malhotra P, Gupta PS, Jain BK., 1978
  • Pain, Stephanie. (2007). "The pharaohs' pharmacists." New Scientist. 15 December, 2007, pp. 40-43.

External links

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