Doctors and Medicine in Ancient Egypt
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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)

June 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. Because Nile catfish could give electric shocks that seemed magical, Egyptian doctors tried using powdered catfish as a medicine. 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. The foundation of the University of Alexandria in the 300s BC meant that Egyptian doctors continued to be leaders in medical research in the Hellenistic period. Almost immediately, the Greek doctor Praxagoras and his West Asian students Herophilus and Erasistratos moved to Alexandria and (maybe inspired by the Indian surgeon Sushruta?) took advantage of the new university's freedom to cut open dead people's bodies - and possibly also the bodies of enslaved people who were still alive! - in public demonstrations and learn more about how the human body worked.

Praxagoras thought that the arteries carried blood and the veins carried air, but Herophilus learned that veins also carried blood and that your pulse came from rhythmic throbbing of your veins. He realized that you thought with your brain, not your heart. Herophilus figured out the difference between blood vessels and nerves, and described the optic nerve that connects your brain to your eyes. But he thought that there was a sort of life-force, which Herophilus called the pneuma ("breath"), that flowed throughout your body with the blood in your veins. And he thought that imbalances in your four humors blocked the pneuma from flowing to your brain.

Egyptian doctors kept on being the world's best into the Roman period and then the Islamic period, ending in the work of the great doctor Maimonides and Ibn al-Nafis, who figured out that your heart sends blood to your lungs to get air. But after the Black Death hit Egypt in the 1300s AD, under the Burjis, Egypt became much poorer, and couldn't support great universities or great doctors anymore. After that, Europe became the center of medical research.

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
More about African science
More about Ancient Egypt
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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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