Ancient Egyptian Medicine

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River Nile

The Egyptians were one of the most important civilisations in the ancient world. The society of Ancient Egypt relied on the River Nile.

  • The Egyptian civilisation was an agricultural one that spread in a narrow band along the river Nile. It thrived between 3400 and 30BC. Every year the Nile floods fertilised the fields and the river provided water for irrigation.
  • The successful agriculture provided spare food so that more people could be doctors, priests (these two professions overlapped or were the same thing) and other professionals.
  • Barges on the Nile enabled fairly swift transportation and communication making trade and government easier.
  • The ancient Egyptians had writing - so ideas could be recorded and communicated better than in prehistoric societies.
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Egyptian Gods

  • The world of the Egyptians was controlled by the Gods; The Egyptians had a huge number of gods that controlled all aspects of life, including illness and medicine. Amulets, charms and rituals were used to avoid and cure illness.
  • Sekhmet was the goddess of war, who also sent and cured epidemics. Thoth was the god who gave doctors their ability to cure people. Imhotep, who was the Pharoah Zoser's doctor in about 2630BC, was adopted as a god of healing. Doctors were respected people.
  • Priests kept the Books of Thoth, which contained the accepted treatments and spells. The books themselves have not survived the Papyrus Ebers (so called because it was once owned by a German Egyptologist called Maurice Ebers) contains spells, potions (medicines) and procedures probably taken rom the Books of Thoth.
  • Some of the drugs used by the Egyptians, including opium, are still used today. They were probably thought of as driving away evil spirits rather than affecting the way the body works.
  • The instructions are very exact as to what should be done, what medicines given and what words should be used in incantation and when talking to the patient.

Diagnosis means the observation of a patient and the recognition of their symptoms. Even though it is simple in theory, diagnosis can be the most important part of the work of a doctor and can be quite tricky. Egyptian writings survive that demonstrate that they included diagnosis in their medical rituals.

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Mummification

  • The Egyptians' understanding of the body was both helped and hindered by mummification.
  • The Egyptians believed that the human body would be needed by a person in the afterlife and that material possessions would also be important. This led to them preserving bodies and entombing them with fabulous grave goods.
  • They prepared bodies for mummification by extracting soft organs such as the brain and the intestines, then drying (desiccating) what remained with salt. This gave the Egyptians some knowledge of anatomy.
  • They believed that destroying someone's body meant they wouldn't go to the afterlife, so experimental dissection was out. This limited the amount of knowledge that could be gained.
  • An Egyptian papyrus written around 1600 BC outlines some simple surgical procedures.
  • Carvings in the temple of Kom Ombo (100BC) show a variety of surgical instruments.
  • Willow was used after surgery and to treat wounds. It contains salicylic acid, a mild antiseptic and the original source of aspirin.
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Non-Spiritual Causes

  • The River Nile led some Egyptians to suggest that, like the Nile delta or their irrigation systems, the body was full of channels.
  • They thought that if those channels were blocked this led to disease. This led them to use vomiting, purging (laxatives) and bleeding to clear the various passages. Such treatments may have helped with some complaints.
  • Such ideas were not accepted by everyone and the people who believed them did not abandon spiritual explanations and treatments.
  • The Egyptians know diet was important - medical procedures included recommended foods.
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Cleanliness & Writing

  • The Egyptians valued cleanliness. They bathed, shaved their heads and had toilets. They also changed their clothes regularly.
  • In the Egyptian climate this would have made life more comfortable, but hygiene also appears to have had a religious significance. Priests washed more often than others and would shave their whole bodies before important ceremonies.
  • Egyptian toilets have been found, but they did not have water-fed sewers so the toilets had to be emptied manually.
  • Egyptians also developed mosquito nets which would have offered some protection from malaria.
  • One of the reasons we know so much about Ancient Egyptian medicine is because they wrote things down. Ancient writing was done in little pictures called hieroglyphics. It allowed for their ideas about the human body and its diseases to pass down the generations. 
  • Writing is hugely important for medicine - having access to different texts is a key theme.
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