Egypt: Doctors in Ancient Egypt

Medicine of the Pharaohs:

For Every Malady a Cure

Of all the branches of science pursued in ancient Egypt, none achieved such popularity as medicine as it was based on an integrated scientific methodology and a system of medical schools. Under this system, the first of its kind in human history, the first school of medicine dated back to the first Dynasty followed by other reputed schools such as Per Bastet in the New Kingdom and at Abydos and Sais in the late period.

Medical Training

Physicians learnt their profession at schools called Houses of Life. They were no doubt given some practical experience, but chiefly they had to study what was already written. They used to administer their treatments in accordance with a written law composed by earlier famous physicians. Medical texts were used not only as a fount of professional knowledge but also as a safeguard against possible failure.

Categories of Physicians

Priests were the first to practice medicine as some doctors belonged to the priesthood. 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 own 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 special hierarchy and titles.

There was even a degree of specialization quite remarkable for the time. Each physician used to treat one disease, and no more. There were plenty of physicians everywhere. Some were eye-doctors, some dealt with the head, others with teeth or the abdomen, and some with hidden maladies. Only members of the high strata of society were allowed to learn and practice this honorable profession. Moreover, a physician had to learn the science of drugs especially botany.

Ancient Egyptians held physicians in so much high esteem that they raised Imhotep, the great physician (2700 BC) after his death to a sacred status as the god of medicine.

Historical Glimpse

According to the ancient historian Biliny, Egyptians used to examine bodies of the dead to know the cause of death. This should not look strange for such people, traditionally accustomed, as they were, to thorough pursuit of knowledge. According to the American historian Breasted, an authority on ancient Egyptian history, ancient Egyptian surgeons were highly skilled as shown in inscriptions. Clean wounds were treated by stitching and adhesive bandages. Other wounds were treated by approximating edges on the first day then with honey and astringent herbs. Moreover, fractures were successfully treated with splints. They used many methods to diagnose pregnancy and to know the gender of embryo before birth. They were the first to use Arabian gum in birth control. They were the first to use delivery stool, with special attention to pediatrics and the patient nutrition. It also appears that for some people, at least, there was a system of free medical aid.

Ancient Egyptian chemists equally excelled in preparing and extracting drugs from mineral, botanical and, animal substances. However ancient Egyptian pharmacopoeia was mainly based on herbs especially vegetables and other foods. Drugs were used in pills and ointment form and drops. Dressings and deodorant preparations were also used. This is clearly shown in the Ebers papyrus which includes names of medical herbs of great medical benefit.

Diagnosis Methods

It is both interesting and surprising to know that the diagnosis methods currently used in the medical profession are no much different than those used by ancient Egyptian physicians several centuries ago.

According to the Berlin Papyrus No. 154, an ancient report reads as follows:

The patient suffers a great epigastric pain. He feels a heavy, hot and inflamed body. He complains of being unable to tolerate his clothes and feels they do not warm him. He feels thirsty during the night. His saliva has the taste of unripe fruits. His muscles pain him as if he walked for a long distance.

Conception of Human Body

The Egyptians conception 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. Notions of physiology and disease were all anchored in the concept of the heart as the center of the organism. 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 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.