Positive Progress Through The Benevolent Use Of Knowledge

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Did Ancient Egyptians study Anatomy?

The matter-of-factness and soberness of those early medical texts is very impressive. The doctor who wrote them down was not only an experienced man but a wise one, whose general point of view sometimes adumbrates that of the Hippocratic writings. For example, he recommends an expectant attitude, trusting in the healing power of nature, or he recommends waiting "until thou knowest that he [the patient] has reached a decisive point"; this reminds us of the Hippocratic notion of crisis.

Did the Egyptians study Anatomy? There is no reason to believe that the ancient Egyptians had studied anatomy, by means of deliberate dissections, but they had taken advantage of the accidental experiments falling under their eyes and had accumulated much knowledge. Of course, the mummification of dead bodies of men and animals, which had been practiced from time immemorial, might have taught them many things, but I am rather skeptical about that; the embalmers were too much concerned about their own difficult art to pay attention to irrelevant anatomic details. lt is possible that the practice of mummification made it easier later, much later, in Ptolemaic times, for Greek scientists to undertake systematic dissections, but that is another story. As far as ancient Egypt is concerned there is no evidence of the influence of mummification on anatomic knowledge.

The author whose work is recorded in the Smith papyrus had meditated on anatomic and physiologic questions. He was aware of the importance of the pulse, and of a connection between pulse and heart. He had some vague idea of a cardiac system, though not of course of a circulation, which nobody clearly understood before Harvey (and before him the Muslim physiacin Ibn Al-Nafis). His knowledge of the vascular system was made hopelessly difficult by his inability to distinguish between blood vessels, tendons, and nerves. Yet consider these astounding observations of the brain :
"If thou examines a man having a gaping wound in his head penetrating to the bone, smashing his skull, and rending open the brain of his skull, thou shouldst palpate his wound. Shouldst thou find that smash which in his skull like those corrugations which form in molten copper, and something therein throbbing and fluttering under thy fingers, like the weak place of an infant's crown before it becomes whole- when it has happened there is no throbbing and fluttering under thy fingers until the brain of his [the patient's] skull is rent open and he discharges blood from both his nostrils, and he suffers with stiffness in his neck."
He had observed the meninges, the cerebrospinal fluid, and the convolutions of the brain (compared in the previous quotation to the rippling surface of metallic slag). Moreover, he had realized that the brain was the seat of the control of the body, and that special kinds of control were localized in special parts of the brain.
Conclusion To conclude, the Smith papyrus, and to a lesser extent the Ebers one, give us a very favorable idea of the medicine, anatomy, and physiology of the Egyptians, and of the scientific outlook that they obtained at least two thousand years before Hippocrates.
Mummification in Ancient EgyptPreservation of human bodies after death is usually designated by two expressions, namely, "embalming" and "mummification". To embalm literally means "to place in balsam or resin". which is actually one of the last steps of the whole process of the preservation of the body. The word "mummification" is derived from the Latin word (perhaps of Persian origin) "mumia" which was mentioned by Dioscorides (first century A.D.) as a black bitumen found oozing from the earth in certain places. This word was applied at a late date to the embalmed bodies in Egypt, probably due to the fact that from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty onwards, bituminous materials were largely used in the presevation of the body. Mummification is undoubtedly the most distinctive technique or art which developed in Ancient Egypt. It greatly affected the habits and customs of the ancient Egyptians and, through it, much knowledge was gained in anatomy, chemistry, and many arts and industries.

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