Per Sekhemet Faculty of Medicine
||Diseases & Curses
||Heka / Magic
||Intestine & Chest
There were six books for Medicines
The Egyptians were advanced medical practitioners for their time. They were
masters of human anatomy and healing mostly due to the extensive mummification
ceremonies. This involved removing most of the internal organs including the
brain, lungs, pancreas, liver, spleen, heart and intestine. The Egyptians had
(and this is an understatement) a basic knowledge of organ functions within the
human body (save for the brain and heart which they thought had opposite
functions). This knowledge of anatomy, as well as (in the later dynasties) the
later crossover of knowledge between the Greeks and other culture areas, led to
an extensive knowledge of the functioning of the organs, and branched into many
other medical practices. Further, it was not uncommon in both early and later
dynasties for scholars from ancient Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean
to study the medical practitioners of Ancient Egypt. Of the most notable of
these traveling scholars was, Herodotus
and Pliny, both Greek scholars, whose contribution to the ancient and modern
medical records, reached from the time of Ancient Egypt and into the modern era.
The practices of Egyptian medical practitioners ranged from embalming to
faith healing to surgery and autopsy. 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 caused death. 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 almost always given by a
member of the priestly
caste meant that an individual undertook the stringent and regular
purification rituals (which included much bathing, and often times shaving one's
head and body hair), and maintained their dietary restrictions against raw fish
and other animals considered unclean to eat. Also, and 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 obviously portrays that religious magical rites and pacificatory
rites were intertwined in the healing process as well as in
creating a proper lifestyle.
Though Egyptian medical practices by no means could rival that of the present
day physicians, Egyptian healers engaged in surgery, prescriptive, and many
other healing practices still found today. Among the curatives used by the
Egyptians were all types of plant (herbs and other plants), animal (all parts
nearly) and mineral compounds. The use of these compounds led to an extensive
compendium of curative recipes, some still available today. For example, yeast
was recognized for its healing qualities and was applied to leg ulcers and
swellings. Yeast's were also taken internally for digestive disorders and were
an effective cure for ulcers.
Though the Egyptians were effective healers, they did not have a clear
knowledge of cellular biology or of germ theory, so it would be inappropriate to
attribute the use of Yeast's as an antibiotic; as the curative effects behind
the use of antibiotics were not known until well into modern times. Yet one must
admire the ingenuity of the Egyptians, which undoubtedly has it's place within
the compendium of human medical history. The largest of these medicinal
compendiums was compiled by Hermes (a healer of Greek origin who studied in
Egypt), and consisted of six books. The first of these six books was directly
related to anatomy, the rest served as a book of physic, and as apothecaries.
Though Hermes was not the first to compile much of the information about
Egyptian medical practices, beginning early on with the pharaoh Athothes (the
second king of Egypt), the Egyptians are credited with being the first to use
and record advanced medical practices.
Every Malady a Cure
Of all the branches of science pursued in ancient Egypt, none achieved such
popularity as medicine. Homer put it aptly in the Odyssey (IV, 229-232):
That fecund land brings forth abundant herbs, Some baneful, and some curative
when duly mixed. There, every man's a doctor; every man Knows better than all
others how to treat
All manner of disease ...
There was even a degree of specialization quite remarkable for the time, if we
are rightly informed. Herodotus (II, 84) asserts that "The practice of
medicine is so divided among them that each physician treats one disease, and no
more. There are plenty of physicians everywhere. Some are eye-doctors, some deal
with the head, others with the teeth or the belly, and some with hidden
The usual term for a doctor was sunu, written with an arrow-shaped symbol that,
it had been suggested, was an allusion to the use of arrowheads to lance
abscesses. Some doctors belonged to the priesthood, including priests of
the goddess Sakhmet, patroness of diseases, remedies and physicians, and of the
lector-priests (khery-heb). Some again were counted among the scribes, as shown
in such titles as 'chief doctor and scribe of the word of god'. Many enjoyed
ecclesiastical as well as lay titles.
Like other professions doctors had their
hierarchy. Besides ordinary doctors there were senior doctors, inspectors,
overseers and masters of physicians and the 'Chief of Physicians of the South
and the North', a kind of minister of health. Royal and palace doctors had their
special hierarchy and titles.
The Belgian scholar Frans Jonckheere counted 82 doctors known by name, many with
titles suggesting specialization in some defined area. Hermann Grapow, however,
is probably right in thinking of them as simply exemplifying the various skills
which the doctor might possess.
Thus the 6th-dynasty court physician and high priest Pepyankh, known as
Iry, was not only 'doctor to the king's belly' and 'shepherd of the king's
anus', but also 'the king's eye-doctor'. There has been much dispute recently as
to whether dentistry ranked as a separate calling; there are only five
references to it in the Old Kingdom and another isolated one in the 2 6th
dynasty. Nor has it yet been settled whether any of the doctors known to us
There were no female nurses to help the doctors,
but we do know of male nurses, dressers, masseurs and lay therapists. It would
be wrong to see connections between the medical profession and that of the
embalmers, priests of the god Anubis. Contrary to older ideas that Egyptian
doctors took part in the preparation of mummies to improve their knowledge of
anatomy, it must be re-emphasized that most of their information came from
ancient texts in which descriptions of the internal organs were based on analogy
with animal bodies.
The embalming procedure had nothing in common with medical autopsies. The
physician learnt his trade in the Houses of Life, notably at Per Bastet in the
New Kingdom and at Abydos and Sais in the Late Period. He was no doubt given
some practical experience, but chiefly he had to study what was already written.
As the Ebers Papyrus says: 'His guide is Thoth, who lets the scrolls speak for
themselves, compiles treatises and expounds knowledge to the savants and doctors
who follow in his path.'
Diodorus too confirms this (I, 82, 3): '[They] administer their treatments in
accordance with a written law which was composed in ancient times by many famous
physicians.' From his further statement that 'on their military campaigns and on
their journeys in the country they all receive treatment free of charge', it
appears that for some people, at least, there was a system of free medical aid,
such as we know existed also at Deir el-Medina. But on other occasions doctors
expected to be handsomely reimbursed, as we can tell from a scene in the I
8th-dynasty tomb of the doctor Nebamun at Dra Abu el-Naga. There we see a
patient, supported by his wife, (both dressed in Syrian style), being handed
some medicine by Nebamun's orderly.
Behind this group and on another register is a file of servants bringing the
doctor his fee - a copper ingot, a set of vessels (full, no doubt) and several
The medical texts were not only the fount of professional knowledge but an
insurance against possible failure. Diodorus saw this clearly (I, 8 2): 'If they
follow the rules of this law as they read them in the sacred book and yet are
unable to save their patient, they are absolved from any charge; but if they go
contrary to the law's prescriptions they must submit to a trial with death as
Of the eight extant medical compendia the most important is the Ebers Papyrus, a
collection of about 700 prescriptions for treating internal diseases arranged
according to the organ concerned. This was built up between the 4th millennium
BC and the New Kingdom through the continual addition of fresh material. The
Hearst Papyrus, by contrast, probably represents the memoranda of a practicing
doctor of the I 8th dynasty in which he had written out remedies from other
works, the Ebers Papyrus among them.
Dental Surgery, Jaw of
ancient Egyptian showing drill holes used in dental repair.
Courtesy of the Gordon Museum
The World first Dental Bridge
The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus shows a profound empirical knowledge of the
different types of injuries and how to treat them: this is a copy from the
Second Intermediate Period of a work at least 1000 years older. Other medical
documents include the Great Berlin Papyrus, the London Papyrus, Chester Beatty
Papyrus NO.VI, Papyrus Ny Carlsberg NO.VIII and the Kahun Papyrus, the last
dealing with gynecology. These are largely copies of Old Kingdom treatises made
during the Middle and New Kingdoms.
Examination of both medical and non-medical documents has convinced many
investigators that the ancient Egyptians knew their anatomy in fair detail. In
addition to externally visible features there are many names of internal organs
well known from butchery and cooking.
Notions of physiology and disease were all anchored in the concept of the heart
as the center of the organism. It was the site of the soul, the reasoning
faculty, qualities of character, and emotions. It was through the heart that god
spoke, and the Egyptian received knowledge of god and god's will. The heart was
one's partner: it spoke to a person in his or her solitude.
It was at the same time the engine of all the bodily functions, not only of one
cardinal function, the circulation, as modern science revealed. From the heart
proceeded channels (metu) linking all parts of the body together.
These channels, the Egyptians believed, conveyed not only the blood, but also
air (reaching the heart from the nose, they thought), tears, saliva, mucus,
sperm, urine, nutriment and feces, as well as harmful substances (wehedu)
conceived to be the agents of pain and illness. Not only blood vessels were
considered as metu, but also the respiratory tract, tear duct, ducts of various
glands, spermatic duct, the muscles, tendons and ligaments.
The female organs were likewise seen as tubes
open into the internal cavity; the eye was supposed to communicate with the car
and the only purpose of the brain was to pass mucus to
the nose, with which it was also thought to be connected. The Egyptian idea of
the human body, then. was as a network of interconnecting channels and analogous
to the branches of the Nile and the artificial canals of their own country. It
was soon realized that in some of the metu the heart 'spoke' and a doctor could
'measure the heart' from this beat. But he could only tell if the heart was
going faster or slower by comparing the patient's pulse with his own.
The concept of circulation was still beyond the
Egyptians' knowledge, since they did not distinguish between arteries and veins,
nor appreciate that the blood returned to the heart. The precondition of good
health, they thought, was free flow through the metu: ailments arose when they
became blocked, just as with irrigation canals.
Thus if a woman was infertile this was because the sexual channel was
closed, and constipation or accumulation of the blood were likewise causes of
disease. Harmful substances might find their way into the metu through the
natural orifices, mainly by the ingestion of bad food. But they could also
originate inside the gut, and doctors were therefore much exercised to ensure
its regular evacuation. Sometimes seeing worms in the stool, they deduced that
these too might have come into the body through the mouth and cause a disease.
With externally visible damage like wounds and
fractures the causes were often obvious. But with many internal ailments doctors
were at a loss, so they imputed them to irrational influences, usually gods -
either hostile and malignant deities, or well-intentioned ones who sent down
plagues as a punishment for wrongdoing. Sickness might also be the work of evil
demons, or of an envious neighbor's evil eye.
It would far exceed the scope of this chapter even to enumerate the diseases of
ancient Egyptians that our researches have so far revealed. The evidence comes
from several sources; from identification of their names and from their
description in the texts, from their characteristic appearance in portrayals of
the human body, from the study of pathological tissues in mummies and, in the
case of diseases of bones and teeth, from the examination of human skeletal
remains from burial sites. The study of all these sources constitutes the
recently defined discipline of paleopathology.
According to medical texts the ancient Egyptians recognized some 200 types Of
sickness, though there is no mention of diseases of the lungs, liver,
gall-bladder, spleen, pancreas or kidneys - the symptoms evidently eluded them.
We can of course never be sure what any named disease refers to unless its
symptoms or recommended treatment are mentioned in the same context.
The descriptions of external lesions and in particular of wounds are
fairly clear. A wound is said to have a 'mouth' and 'lips' and may 'go as far as
the bone'. It is usually accompanied by bleeding, which in the case of severe
injuries to the skull, may come from the nose and ears too. The Ebers Papyrus
(Case 8) mentions that a skull fracture hemorrhaging into the brain can cause
paralysis, on the same side of the body it says, not the opposite side - perhaps
this was a copyist's error.
The Smith Papyrus (Case 7) quotes a man with a gaping head-wound as showing the
symptoms of tetanus: 'His mouth is locked tight ... his brow is convulsively
contorted and he has the expression of a man crying.' The Egyptians
distinguished simple fracture, sedj, where the bone is broken in two, and
complicated fractures, peshen, resulting in numerous fragments.
Conditions characterized by a bulging of the affected part were classified
either as shefut, commonly translated as 'swellings' but in view of some
scholars references to a liquid content possibly including abscesses too, or as
henhenet and aat, thought to denote tumors. The former were treated with
dressings, the latter by excision. Most of the ophthalmic and internal maladies
mentioned in the texts are difficult to identify with certainty. The only
unambiguous ones are constipation, inflammation of the rectum, cystitis, and
blood in the urine, usually due (in Egypt) to bilharzia, equated by Ebbell and
Jonckheere with the disease aat.
We are on safer ground where we can find illustrations drawn by artists with a
feeling for characteristic changes of appearance. The Queen of Punt, familiar to
us from a relief in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari, suffered from
abnormal obesity, probably lipodystrophy. The eunuchoid appearance of Akhenaten
towards the end of his reign suggests Frohlich's syndrome resulting from
malfunction of the pituitary gland or of the mesencephalon, most probably due to
a tumor. There are many depictions of dwarfs, distinguishable from the ethnic
pygmies of Africa by their abnormal proportions.
One important achievement has been the
examination of fragments of lung tissue overlooked by the embalmers when they
were removing the soft parts from inside the body. It has shown that Egyptian
lungs, like ours, contained coal dust in the lymphatic nodules (anthracosis),
probably through inhaling smoke from open fires. Hypertrophied connective tissue
between the alveoli, and the lymphatic vessels of other mummies proved to
contain minute sharp-edged particles of silicates, felspars and other granite
In other cases lungs were found to be covered with dust of fine desert sand
(pneumoconiosis). Other mummies again showed changes characteristic of
pneumonia, sometimes complicated by pleuritis or pericarditis.
Ancient Egyptian Medicine 3- Medical Discoveries
The people of Ancient Egypt made several major medical discoveries
and began treating diseases in a physical manner alongside older
The Egyptians did not perform major surgery as
conducted today they did make major developments in surgical
knowledge and practice. Egyptian physicians are known to have
performed some minor surgical operations however. The Papyrus Edwin
Smith informs us of methods used to treat dislocated bones.
Egyptians used antiseptic to aid the healing
process, another major development in medical practice (they used
Willow leaves and bark which are known to decrease the likelihood of
Egyptians had a reasonable understanding of the
functions of major organs. They knew that vessels carried blood
around the body.
Surgical practices were written down and taught
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is 5 meters
long, and is chiefly concerned with surgery. It described 48
surgical cases of wounds of the head, neck, shoulders, breast and
chest. Unfortunately, the scribe who copied it did not proceed
further from the thorax, and it ended abruptly in the middle of a
sentence. The papyrus listed the manifestations, followed by
prescriptions to every individual case. It included a vast
experience in fractures that can only be acquired at a site where
accidents were extremely numerous, as during the building of the
The Edwin Smith Papyrus shows the suturing of non-infected wounds
with a needle and thread. Raw meat was applied on the first day,
subsequently replaced by dressing of astringent herbs, honey and
butter or bread. Raw meat is known to be an efficient way to prevent
bleeding. Honey is a potent hygroscopic material (absorbs water) and
stimulates the secretion of white blood cells, the natural first
body defence mechanism.
At least 39 mummies with cancer have been identified. Cancer of
the uterus has been described in the Ebers papyrus
Breast cancer was also described, but was non-curable.
|Two sculptured slabs from the 1st dynasty (3150 – 2925
BC) dating to kings Aha and Djer (2nd and 3rd kings) show a seated
person directing a pointed instrument to the throat of another who was
kneeling. Some Egyptologists believe it was a tracheotomy (opening the
airways to maintain breathing) procedure.
The surgical treatment of abscesses or cysts was described in the
Surgeons today are aware that complete excision of a swelling capsule
is mandatory to avoid its recurrence.
Piles and rectal prolapsed were treated by medication, suppositories,
laxatives and enema. For burns, a mixture of milk of a woman who has
borne a male child, gum, and, ram’s hair was applied. Urethral
strictures were dilated using reeds. This was the earliest non-surgical
intervention ever applied in history. In modern medicine, the first
intervention was reported in the AD 1880’s by catgut balloons.
Mild antiseptics, as frankincense, date-wine, turpentine and acacia
gum were used. Hot fire-drill was employed in cauterization.
Cairo museum has a collection of surgical instruments, including
scalpels, scissors, copper needles, forceps, spoons, lancets, hooks,
probes and pincers. A collection of 37 instruments is engraved on a wall
in the temple of Kom-Ombo (2nd century BC), which was one of the houses
The Edwin Smith Papyrus contains a list of instruments,
including lint, swabs, bandage, adhesive plaster (x-formed), support, surgical
stitches and cauterization
Pain alleviation to allow surgery was known to ancient Egyptian physicians.
Patients were sedated by opiates. Local anaesthesia was also known, where water
was mixed with vinegar over Memphite stone, resulting in the formation of carbon
dioxide with its known analgesic effect. This is not too far from modern
FRACTURES AND BONE DISEASES:
In a recent excavation close to the pyramids, the city of the craftsmen and
builders of the pyramids was discovered. The remnants of their skeletons show
simple and multiple limb fractures, mostly at the ulna and radius (forearm
bones), and of the fibula (leg). Most of those fractures show signs of complete
healing with good realignment of the bone, indicating that they had been set
correctly with a splint. Possibly, traction was applied in humerus fractures
(arm bone). Two skeletons show amputations (a left leg and a right arm) with
healed bone ends, suggesting a successful surgery. Recently, American
researchers have described a 23 cm screw, tying the thigh and calf bones, fixed
into a mummy dating back to the 6th century BC. It could not be confirmed
whether it was placed surgically or during embalming.
Fracture forearm with splint, from a
mummy of the 5th dynasty, showing signs of healing.
An inscription in the tomb of Ipujy, an architect of the 19th dynasty
(1300 BC) shows the physician – or sunu – reducing a dislocated joint.
The procedure is exactly similar to the modern “Kocher’s technique”
orthopedics use today.
The diagnosis of sciatic pain was well described in the Edwin Smith