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Monday, December 1, 2008

Ancient Egyptians and the Study of Medicine

Medical Book of Ancient Egypt Pictures, Images and Photos

Knowledge of Egyptian medicine comes chiefly from two documents, the Ebers Papyrus and the Smith Papyrus. These date from the mid-2d millennium BCE but codify much older knowledge. The Ebers Papyrus details not only the incantations to be used for specific illnesses but lists many practical remedies. Drug treatments include the use of castor oil as a laxative and willow leaves and bark (which contained acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin) to speed healing. The Smith Papyrus gives detailed case reports and describes the removal of cysts, male circumcision, bone-setting, and staunching bleeding by pressure.

Surgical case histories are inscribed on this ancient Egyptian papyrus that was sold to antiquities collector Edwin Smith in 1862. Procedures described here include treatment of head wounds and broken bones.
Image courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine,
Egyptian physicians learned about human anatomy from the mummification process. The major organs were removed during the process, and ancient physicians accurately described the functions of most organs.
Image courtesy of

The Egyptians presumably learned a lot about human anatomy because of their practice of mummifying bodies. The papyri show that they understood the functions of most major organs, though they had roles of the heart and brain reversed. The Egyptians believed that the brain pumped blood and the heart controlled the feelings and thoughts.

Medical practice was highly organized, at least for society’s elite. Physicians called swnu specialized in particular organs of the body or diseases. Some, for example, dealt with the eyes, some the teeth, and some the intestines. There were female swnu. Records from the mid 3rd millennium BCE describe a person called Pesheshet as the “lady overseer of the female physicians.” This is the first historical reference to doctors who were women. Sorcerers were another class of healers.
At the top of the hierarchy were the priest-physicians. The most celebrated was Imhotep, who served as chief vizier to the pharaoh Zoser in the early 3d millennium BCE. He was a priest and astrologer, a designer of pyramids, and renowned as a physician. Imhotep was later given divine status. The shrines associated with his worship became healing centers.
In nearby Mesopotamia, a similar system developed, with spiritual and practical healers playing different roles.

Imhotep was a priest-physician to ancient Egyptian pharaoh Zoser. He was so respected as a physician that he was given divine status, with shrines to him.
Image courtesy of National Library of Medicine.

History of Medicine
Ancient Egyptians
Ancient Mesopotamia
Ancient Greece
Shamanism in the Present Day
Traditional Medicine
Chinese Traditions
India’s Long-Standing Traditions
Greece and the Humoral Tradition in Western Medicine
The Beginnings of Modern Medicine
Greece: The Basis of Western Medical Tradition
The Caliphate: Islamic Physicians Describe Anatomy and Diseases
Medieval Europe: Medical Schools are Founded
The Rise of Scientific Medicine
Scientific Revolution
Nineteenth Century
The 20th Century And On
Drugs to Treat Sicknesses
Understanding the Immune System
The Rise of Genetics
The Role of Technology
Now What?
Digging Deeper: The Microscope
Digging Deeper: Medical Symbols and Snakes

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