Egyptian medicine developed from 3200 B.C. to 30 B.C. within a culture that believed in an afterlife following death. The Egyptians believed that the vital life force of their kings and other important members of Egyptian society, such as priests and t he nobility, could return to reanimate their bodies. This created the necessity of learning how to preserve the bodies of the dead so that the returning kings would have as comfortable a life as possible.
The Egyptians developed very sophisticated techni ques of mummification and were even able to preserve vital organs such as the liver and spleen, which were kept separately in canopic jars, often with a small sculptured image of a god inserted in the organ to help ensure preservation. One part of the bo dy, however, was sometimes removed — the heart. This was because the Egyptians believed in a judgment day following death, and did not want their hearts present to testify against them.
Egyptian medical doctrine stated that the heart was the source of 36 channels called “metu” which radiated to different parts of the body, including the head and nose, the ears, the feet, the liver, the lungs and spleen, the rectum, the testicles and the bladder. Blockages in these channels were what caused sickness. Pain was also caused by “vehedu,” pain substances which entered the body from outside, especially through the nose and ears.
Egyptian physicians used both prayers to the gods and rituals as well as herbal treatments and surgery in their healing. Recommended prayers were included as part of the procedural guidelines for surgical techniques, in which the physicians would ask th e gods for help in augmenting their skill.
Some of their treatments were considered barbaric and disgusting by Western medical standards. Various treatments specified washing injuries with “filth” such as faeces, urine, different types of dirt, and rotten bread. However, modern medicine has rec ently found evidence that many of these techniques may have been wiser than they originally appeared to be. Some types of dirt and feces do in fact contain strong antibiotic properties, and rotten bread is now well known as the source of antibiotics such as penicillin.
Egyptian physicans also made casts for broken limbs using flour and water, which hardened after application to prevent movement of the limb. They had remedies for internal diseases as well as external diseases and injuries. Medicines were used to trea t the heart, and surgical treatments were used particularly for traumatic injuries. Egyptian doctors also prescribed herbal treatments for controlling dandruff, lice, body odor, as well as cosmetic treatments for skin and hair.
Materia Medica and Important Texts
The major Egyptian medical papyri are the Kahun (1900 B.C.), which discusses women’s diseases and pregnancy; the Edwin Smith (1660 B.C.), which contains surgical instructions and formulas for cosmetics; the Ebers (1550 B.C.), which contains specific reme dies for various diseases; the Hearst (1550 B.C.), which contains formulas for remedies; the Erman (1550 B.C.) which contains treatments for infants and childbirth; the London (1350 B.C.), which describes formulas for remedies; the Berlin (1350 B.C.), whi ch has general remedies as well as prescriptions for pregnant women; and the Chester Beatty (1200 B.C.), which deals with anal diseases. Many of these texts may be even older than the date of the papyri, as it is believed that the Smith papyri, for examp le, was copied by a scribe from an older document that may have dated back as far as 3000 B.C.
Egyptian physicians also had extensive herbal knowledge and obtained herbal remedies from faraway countries through extensive trade routes. Plants utilized by the Egyptians in their materia medica included cassia, castor bean, cucumber, cumin, date, fen nel, fig, garlic, juniper, leek, lotus, poppy seeds, saffron, willow buds, white thistle and wormwood. They also utilized mineral remedies including alum, copper, feldspar, iron oxide, limestone, red ochre, sodium carbonate, sodium biocarbonate, salt and sulphur, particularly as astringents. Frankincense, myrrh, turpentine and acacia gum were also used.
Egyptian physicians were well known and renowned for their skills in the ancient world. One Egyptian physician was so famous that he later became a god — Imhotep, the god of healing.
- Leake, Chauncey D., The Old Egyptian Medical Papyri, Logan Clendening Lectures on the History and Philosophy of Medicine, 2nd Series. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1952.
- Thorwald, Jugen, Science and the Secrets of Early Medicine : Egypt – Mesopotamia – India – China – Mexico – Peru. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York : Harcourt Brace and World Inc., 1963.