As one of the oldest civilizations with written language and significant volumes of preserved texts, ancient Egypt is also the first civilization that has been found to have concrete records of medical professionals (who were, for the most part, not holy men). The Egyptians also had a fair understanding of what was inside the body, and how everything was connected.
Though magic and superstition played a role in Egyptian medicine, herbal remedies, massage therapy, and dietary recommendations were also used and recorded. The physicians in Egypt were far from the witch doctors of primitive tribes; even the ones who specialized in the more superstitious and magical aspects of medicine were generally well-educated and observant, and knew when a physician specialized in something else could better help a patient.
Much of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian medicine is gleaned from a few major papyri, though there’s evidence of it written and illustrated in many other places. The most significant papyri were:
- Ebers Papyrus - Original manuscript written approximately 1600 BCE, during the Pyramid Age. A roll of papyrus 20.23 meters long and 30 cm high, with 877 spells and recipes covering a large number of ailments. Only 12 cases recommend spells; the rest are therapeutics that are not irrational (though not all of them would’ve been effectual). Includes recitals to be used prior to treatment, to increase the virtue of the remedy. Also one of the few papyri that includes surgical interventions - most Egyptian medicine did not involve surgery beyond the setting of broken bones.
- Edwin Smith Papyrus - A much shorter papyrus, consisting of case studies and examples (including anatomical descriptions) instead of cures and remedies. Each of the 48 cases lists: 1. Title 2. Examination 3. Diagnosis 4. Treatment (if the case was to be treated) 5. Glosses (a small dictionary of obscure terms that may have been used in the case - a surgeon near the end of the Old Kingdom had the idea that the papyrus would be more useful if cases were described in more contemporary terms).
The Smith papyrus introduced the concept of “An ailment I will treat”, “An ailment with which I will contend”, and ”An ailment not to be treated”. This system of a verdict based upon the diagnosis is so ingrained into medicine today that it seems crazy that there was a time where it wasn’t standard practice, doesn’t it?
The Greeks also recorded (and apparently admired) much of how ancient Egyptian medicine was performed. In the Odessey, Homer wrote:
In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind.
When Herodotus visited Egypt in the 5th century, he was similarly impressed, and mentioned in his Histories:
The practice of medicine is very specialized among them. Each physician treats just one disease. The country is full of physicians, some treat the eye, some the teeth, some of what belongs to the abdomen, and others internal diseases.
From what historians have learned about Egyptian medical practices, it’s pretty clear that though the ancient Greeks have long been considered the originators of medicine as a practice (separated from religion), the majority of their early knowledge was gleaned from the Egyptians, and it was not until near the end of the ancient Grecian society that truly new information was being recorded.
Über die anatomischen Kenntnisse der alten Ägypter. H. Grapow, 1935
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