Egyptian Medicine
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Bloodaxe's Realm     The Medieval World  

 

The Egyptians were one of the first people to have practicing physicians.

The oldest known physician is Imhotep. He lived around 2725 b.c. He was also known as a high officer, a pyramid builder, and an astrologer.

A popular belief is that the Ancient Egyptians new very little about anatomy. This proves to be false, because in the Ebers papyrus the ancient Egyptians say that a depressed skull fracture looked like a puncture in a pottery jar.

Doctors in Ancient Egypt usually went through years of hard training at temple schools. Usually in the arts of interrogation, inspection, and palpation.

Egyptian doctors new lots about the human body for their time. They studied the structure of the brain, and knew that the pulse was related to the heart. They could also cure many illnesses and set broken bones.

Like the doctors of today, Ancient Egyptian doctors gave out prescriptions. The prescriptions that they gave out were usually for medicines. The one to the left is written in Greek, and has something to do with lead monoxide.

Some Common Plants Used in Medicine by the Egyptians were:

Castor Oil

Castor oil, along with figs and dates, were used as laxatives by the Egyptians.

 

Tannic Acid

Tannic acid was valued by the Egyptians, because it helped heal burns. It was usually derived from acacia nuts. An acacia tree is pictured to the left.

 

Coriander

Coriander was considered to have cooling, stimulant, carminative and digestive properties. It was also taken as a tea for stomach illness.

 

Surgical Tools Used by Egyptian Doctors

The instruments to the left of the
spoons are not identified but they look to me to be
sounds. And what are the devices next to the hooks? Some say that these implements are too large to be surgical instruments but the Egyptians did not carve relief's to scale. Furthermore, this collection is located in an area with other relief's showing medical motifs including the queen giving birth.

 1. knives
 2. drill
 3. saw
 4. forceps or pincers
 5. censer
 6. hooks
 7. bags tied with string
 8. beaked vessel
 9. vase with burning incense
 10. beaked vessel
 11. vase with burning incense
 12. Horus eyes
 13. scales
 14. pot with flowers of       Upper  and Lower Egypt
 15. pot on pedestal
 16. graduated cubit or papyrus scroll without side knot (or a case holding reed scalpels)
17. shears
18. spoons 

Edwin Smith Papyrus 

One of the main sources of Egyptian Medical practices is the Edwin Smith papyrus. It was written around 1700 b.c. but most of the information is based on texts written around 2640 b.c., Imhoteps time. The papyrus appears to talk mainly about wounds, and how to treat them, and surprisingly little about diseases.  The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus is, without a doubt, one if the most important documents pertaining to medicine in the ancient Nile Valley. Placed on sale by Mustafa Agha in 1862, the papyrus was purchased by Edwin Smith. An American residing in Cairo, Smith has been described as an adventurer, a money lender, and a dealer of antiquities. (Dawson and Uphill: 1972). Smith has also been reputed as advising upon, and even practicing, the forgery of antiquities. (Nunn 1996:26) Whatever his personal composition, it is to his credit that he immediately recognized the text for what it was and later carried out a tentative translation. Upon his death in 1906, his daughter donated the papyrus in its entirety to the New York Historical Society. The papyrus now resides in the collections of the New York Academy of Sciences.

In 1930, James Henry Breasted, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, published the papyri with facsimile, transcription, English translation, commentary, and introduction. The volume was accompanied by medical notes prepared by Dr. Arno B. Luckhardt. To date, the Breasted translation is the only one if its kind.

The Edwin Smith papyrus is second in length only to the Ebers papyrus, comprising seventeen pages (377 lines) on the recto and five pages (92 lines) on the verso. Both the recto and the verso are written with the same hand in a style of Middle Egyptian dating.

 

Ebers Papyrus

Like the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Ebers Papyrus was purchased in Luxor by Edwin Smith in 1862. It is unclear from whom the papyrus was purchased, but it was said to have been found between the legs of a mummy in the Assassif district of the Theben necropolis.

The papyrus remained in the collection of Edwin Smith until at least 1869 when there appeared, in the catalog of an antiquities dealer, and advertisement for "a large medical papyrus in the possession of Edwin Smith, an American farmer of Luxor." (Breasted 1930) The Papyrus was purchased in 1872 by the Egyptologist George Ebers, for who it is named. In 1875, Ebers published a facsimile with an English-Latin vocabulary and introduction.

The Ebers Papyrus comprises 110 pages, and is by far the most lengthy of the medical papyri. It is dated by a passage on the verso to the 9th year of the reign of Amenhotep I (c. 1534 B.C.E.), a date which is close to the extant copy of the Edwin Smith Papyrus. However, one portion of the papyrus suggests a much earlier origin. Paragraph 856a states that : "the book of driving wekhedu from all the limbs of a man was found in writings under the two feet of Anubis in Letopolis and was brought to the majesty of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt Den." (Nunn 1996: 31) The reference to the Lower Egyptian Den is a historic anachronism which suggesting an origin closer to the First Dynasty (c. 3000 B.C.E.)

Unlike the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Ebers Papyrus consists of a collection of a myriad of different medical texts in a rather haphazard order, a fact which explains the presence of the above mentioned excerpt. The structure of the papyrus is organized by paragraph, each of which are arranged into blocks addressing specific medical ailments.

Paragraphs 1-3 contain magical spells designed to protect from supernatural intervention on diagnosis and treatment. They are immediately followed by a large section on diseases of the stomach (khet), with a concentration on intestinal parasites in paragraphs 50-85.(Bryan 1930:50) Skin diseases, with the remedies prescribed placed in the three categories of irritative, exfoliative, and ulcerative, are featured in paragraphs 90-95 and 104-118. Diseases of the anus, included in a section of the digestive section, are covered in paragraphs 132-164.(Ibid. 50) Up to paragraph 187, the papyrus follows a relatively standardized format of listing prescriptions which are to relieve medical ailments. However, the diseases themselves are often more difficult to translate. Sometimes they take the form of recognizable symptoms such as an obstruction, but often may be a specific disease term such as wekhedu or aaa, the meaning of both of which remain quite obscure.

Paragraphs 188-207 comprise "the book of the stomach," and show a marked change in style to something which is closer to the Edwin Smith Papyrus. (Ibid.: 32) Only paragraph 188 has a title, though all of the paragraphs include the phrase: "if you examine a man with a," a characteristic which denotes its similarity to the Edwin Smith Papyrus. From this point, a declaration of the diagnosis, but no prognosis. After paragraph 207, the text reverts to its original style, with a short treatise on the heart (Paragraphs 208-241).

Paragraphs 242-247 contains remedies which are reputed to have been made and used personally by various gods. Only in paragraph 247, contained within the above mentioned section and relating to Isis' creation of a remedy for an illness in Ra's head, is a specific diagnosis mentioned. (Bryan 1930:45)

The following section continues with diseases of the head, but without reference to use of remedies by the gods. Paragraph 250 continues a famous passage concerning the treatment of migraines. The sequence is interrupted in paragraph 251 with the focus placed on a drug rather than an illness. Most likely an extract from pharmacopoeia, the paragraph begins: "Knowledge of what is made from degem (most likely a resinous plant yielding a form of castor oil), as something found in ancient writings and as something useful to man." (Nunn 1996: 33)

Paragraphs 261-283 are concerned with the regular flow of urine and are followed by remedies "to cause the heart to receive bread." (Bryan 1930:80). Paragraphs 305-335 contain remedies for various forms of coughs as well as the genew disease.

The remainder of the text goes on to discuss medical conditions concerning hair (paragraphs 437-476), traumatic injuries such as burns and flesh wounds (paragraphs 482-529), and diseases of the extremities such as toes, fingers, and legs. Paragraphs 627-696 are concerned with the relaxation or strengthening of the metu. The exact meaning of metu is confusing and could be alternatively translated as either mean hollow vessels or muscles tissue. (Ibid.:52) The papyrus continues by featuring diseases of the tongue (paragraphs 697-704), dermatological conditions (paragraphs 708-721), dental conditions (paragraphs 739-750), diseases of the ear, nose, and throat (paragraphs 761-781), and gynecological conditions (paragraphs 783-839)