Ancient Egyptian Health and Medicine

(Egyptians suffered with a variety of physical complaints despite healthier habits among ancient nations)

Egyptians might be expected to have been one of the healthiest nations of antiquity with their largely vegetarian diet and ample sunshine

The Egyptians may indeed have been healthier, but pathological examinations of mummies have shown that they, too, suffered from a diversity of complaints: water-borne diseases, then as now, took their toll, and fly-borne afflictions often led to blindness. Venereal disease were unknown but there are known cases of tuberculosis, appendicitis, rheumatism and gout, hydrocephalus, and clubfoot. Even King Ramses V died, apparently, of smallpox.

The Ancient Egyptians, like the Ancient Greeks and Romans, have provided modern historians with a great deal of knowledge and evidence about their attitudes regarding medicine and the medical knowledge that they had. This evidence has come from the numerous papyri found in archaeological investigations.

Egyptian medical knowledge was based on physical observations with a mixture of mythical beliefs

Like prehistoric man, some of the beliefs of the Egyptians were based on myths and legend; however, their knowledge was also based on an increasing knowledge of the human anatomy and commonsense observations.

In Ancient Egypt, the treatment of illnesses was no longer carried out only by magicians and medicine men. There is evidence that there were those who were referred to as "physicians" and "doctors".

"It is seven days from yesterday since I saw my love,
And sickness has crept over me,
My limbs have become heavy,
I cannot feel my own body.
If the master-physicians come to me,
I gain no comfort from their remedies.
And the priest-magicians have no cures,
My sickness is not diagnosed.
My love is better by far for me than my remedies.
She is more important to me than all the books of medicine."
—An Ancient Egyptian love poem written in about 1500 BC.

Additional archaeological discoveries have also found evidence of men titled physicians. The hieroglyphics on the door to the tomb of Irj described him as a physician at the court of the pharaohs. Irj lived about 1500 BC. He was described as a: "palace doctor, superintendent of the court physicians, palace eye physician, palace physician of the belly and one who understands the internal fluids and who is guardian of the anus."

Physicians lived even earlier in Ancient Egypt. Imphotep was the physician to King Zozer and lived in about 2600 BC. Imphotep was considered so important that he was worshipped as a god of healing after his death.

Egyptians suffered with a variety of physical complaints despite having healthier habits compared to other ancient nations

Almost all of our knowledge about Ancient Egyptian medical knowledge comes from the discoveries of papyrus documents. The very dry atmosphere in Egypt has resulted in many of these documents being well preserved despite their age. Numerous papyri have come from the time span of 1900 B.C. to 1500 B.C. It is from these documents that we know that the Ancient Egyptians still believed that some diseases were the result of supernatural causes.

When there was no obvious reason for an illness, many Ancient Egypt doctors and priests believed that disease was caused by spiritual beings. When no-one could explain why someone had a disease, spells and magical potions were used to drive out the spirits.

Some of these spells include the following:

"These words are to be spoken over the sick person. 'O Spirit, male of female, who lurks hidden in my flesh and in my limbs, get out of my flesh. Get out of my limbs!" This was a remedy for a mother and child.

"Come! You who drives out evil things from my stomach and my limbs. He who drinks this shall be cured just as the gods above were cured."

This was added at the end of a cure: 'This spell is really excellent —successful many times.' It was meant to be said when drinking a remedy.

This was a remedy for people going bald:

"Fat of lion, fat of hippo, fat of cat, fat of crocodile, fat of ibex, fat of serpent, are mixed together and the head of the bald person is anointed with them.

Egyptians left us papyri that prove that they were learning more and more about the human body

Despite this use of remedies that come from a lack of knowledge, the Ancient Egyptians also developed their knowledge as a result of education. Ancient papyri suggest that the Ancient Egyptians were discovering things regarding how the human body worked and indicate that they knew that the heart, pulse rates, blood, and air were important to the workings of the human body. A heart that beat feebly told doctors that the patient had problems.

Several medical papyri have survived, the most important of which are the Papyrus Ebers and the Edwin Smith Surgical papyrus. The former, chaotic in its arrangement, is a strange mixture of magical formulas and old wives' remedies. Besides prescriptions for curing various symptoms, it contains specifics for ridding the house of such pests as flies, rats, and scorpions. The materia medica prescribed for illness are often unpleasant (that is, the blood of mice and flies' excreta), but the beneficial effect of certain drugs had been noted, and it is clear that side by side with the traditional medico-magical treatment of disease a considerable body of scientific knowledge based on empirical therpeutics also developed.

The Edwin Smith papyrus is in a different category in that it deals with surgery of the bones and outer tissues, working from the head downward. Medical cases are arranged systematically, under such headings as: name of complaint, examination, diagnosis, and verdict. Notes are added on some of the cases, the exact nature of a lesion is stated and the cause is discussed.

The Ancient Egyptians wrote down their knowledge and this is found on what is known as the Papyrus Ebers:

"Fourty-six vessels go from the heart to every limb, if a doctor places his hand or fingers on the back of the head, hands, stomach, arms or feet; then he hears the heart. The heart speaks out of every limb."

The papyrus continues:

"There are four vessels to his nostrils, two give mucus and two give blood; there are four vessels in his forehead; there are six vessels that lead to the arms; there are six vessels that lead to the feet; there are two vessels to his testicles (and) it is they which give semen; there are two vessels to the buttocks."

The document actually gives names to organs such as the spleen, the heart, the anus, the lungs etc so they must have known that these exist. One papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, has a detailed description of the brain in it so this organ was also well researched by the standards of the time. It is probable that this knowledge came as a result of the practice the Ancient Egyptians had of embalming dead bodies.

Embalming might have been one way Egyptians learned more about human anatomy

Egyptian themselves derived much of their learning in medicine from the first dynasties, and the practice of mummification must have led to a detailed knowledge of human anatomy. The papyri show that the position and function of the stomach and intestines, the action of the larger blood vessels and the relation of the pulse to the hear were realized.

The work of an embalmer was described in detail by Herodotus who was from Greece and was visiting Ancient Egypt in the 5th Century:

"First they take a crooked piece of metal and with it draw out some of the brain through the nostrils and then rinse out the rest with drugs. Next they make a cut along the side of the body with a sharp stone and take out the whole contents of the abdomen. After this they fill the cavity with myrrh, cassia and other spices and the body is placed in natron for 70 days."

Those organs that were removed in the embalming process, were put in a jar along with preserving spices, and put into the tomb of the person being buried. Though religious law forbade the embalmers from studying the body, it is almost certain they would have gained some knowledge of the human anatomy simply from the work that they did.

Egyptian physicians and surgeons treated people in other countries of the ancient world

Egyptian physicians and surgeons had a great reputation among the Greek and other people of the ancient word, and specialists were sent from Egypt to treat the sick in the courts of distant potentates. Medical libraries were attached to most of the larger temples and Galen, Dioscorides and other Greek physicians mentioned drugs, prescriptions, or methods of diagnosis that they learned in the temples of Ptah or Imhotep at Memphis.