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.
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
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
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 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