Doctors and Medicine in Ancient Egypt answers questions
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Egyptian Medicine

Egyptian circumcision
Egyptian boys being circumcised
from the tomb of the Vizier
Ankhmahor and his wife Mereruka
Sixth Dynasty (Old Kingdom, ca. 2300 BC)

May 2016 - Throughout all of antiquity, from the Stone Age to the Islamic period, the doctors of Egypt were the best in the Western world, though there were also very good doctors in India and China. But that isn't really saying very much: nobody in the ancient world really understood what caused diseases or how to cure them.

Egyptian doctors mostly believed that evil spirits either got inside your body or sent poisons inside your body to make you sick. To cure you, the doctors made you eat or drink something very nasty-smelling. They hoped the evil spirit wouldn't like the smell and would leave your body. Or the doctors tried to clean your insides out to get rid of the poison, by giving you laxatives or bleeding you. And they prayed to Sekhmet, the goddess of healing. To cure a cold, they gave you human breast milk to drink. These magic things could really help you, because often people get better when they just see the doctor doing something.

Both men and women were doctors in ancient Egypt. In the Old Kingdom, about 2700 BC, Merit Ptah - a woman - was the Chief Physician. Two hundred years later, another woman, Peseshet, was the Supervisor of Doctors. But men were doctors too: Imhotep and Hesy-Ra were also doctors about the same time as these women, and under Akhenaten, in the New Kingdom, a man named Penthu was the Chief Physician.

teeth held together by wire
Early Egyptian dental bridge (Gordon Museum)

Egyptian doctors did also use effective medical treatments. They massaged aching legs and calves, they stitched and bandaged wounds, and they set broken and dislocated arms and legs. Specialized dentists pulled infected teeth and built bridges to replace lost teeth. They tried to cure breast cancer by cutting out lumps and cauterizing the cancer with a "fire drill." Midwives helped women with childbirth. Egyptian doctors used powdered charcoal as a medicine to absorb poisons and cure food poisoning (as we still do today), and they put powdered charcoal on wounds to absorb pus and blood and promote clotting.

But Egyptian doctors couldn't do anything about schistosomiasis, which probably contributed to the deaths of many if not most Egyptians. Malaria and tuberculosis also weakened or killed many people, and Egyptian doctors also couldn't treat those.

The biggest contribution of Egyptian doctors to medicine was their research on how the human body worked. They figured out that your pulse was related to your heart-beat. They learned that your bronchial tubes ran under your collarbones, from your throat to your lungs. Egyptian doctors continued to be leaders in medical research through the Hellenistic period and the Roman period into the Islamic period, culminating in the work of the great doctor Maimonides.

Learn by doing: feel your pulse and see if it beats faster when your heart beats faster.
More about Egyptian medicine (Schistosomiasis)

Bibliography and further reading about Egyptian medicine:

More about Egyptian science
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?