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Ancient Egyptian Medicine
Ancient Egyptians held strong beliefs in the power of prayers to treat various illnesses, yet their physicians possessed advanced medical knowledge and performed intricate medical practices.
Beliefs and Practices
Ancient Egyptian doctors believed that illnesses were caused by the gods, demons, or spirits. They thought that these entities blocked channels within the body, resulting in illness. Consequently, most healers of that time were priests who employed a combination of spiritual and natural cures. Their treatments included incantations, amulets, offerings, aromas, tattoos, and prayers aimed at driving away the spirits causing diseases. As time progressed, the field of medicinal doctors began to flourish.
The Ancient Egyptians, benefiting from their organized and systematic civilization, made significant advancements in medical research. The renowned Ebers Papyrus, dating back to around 1500 BCE, is considered the oldest known medical document. It comprises over 700 prescriptions, some of which incorporated magical cures, reflecting the belief that magic and medicine were intertwined. The papyrus also detailed incantations recited by doctors to seek divine aid for healing. In addition, it contained information on scientific procedures such as tumor removal.
Numerous other essential medical documents were preserved, including the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, Hearst Papyrus, Berlin Papyrus, Edwin Smith Papyrus, Ramesseum Medical Papyri, London Medical Papyrus, Carlsberg Papyrus, Leiden Papyrus, Erman Papyrus, Brooklyn Papyrus, and Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus.
In Ancient Egypt, injuries were attributed to simple causes, while diseases were seen as the result of sin or evil forces attacking the body. Diseases were primarily treated through incantations and magic spells. The Ancient Egyptians had an array of medical tools, including flints, scalpels, dental pliers, bone saws, clamps, catheters, forceps, scissors, bandages, and even weighing scales for measuring medicine ingredients.
Surgery was practiced, allowing for bone-setting and the treatment of dislocated joints. Wound stitching and skin closure were also common procedures. Inflammatory conditions were addressed with bandages and various plants. Male circumcision was a cultural practice, and prosthetics, though often used for decorative purposes or during burials, were already known.
The Ancient Egyptians conducted mummification, a preservation process for the deceased. This process, which took about 70 days, was highly symbolic and an integral part of their culture. Autopsies were performed, showcasing their understanding of human anatomy.
Dental problems were prevalent among the Ancient Egyptians, although few dentists were available. Their coarse diet, which often included sand and small rocks from grain grinding, contributed to dental issues. Notably, the world’s first-known dentist, Hesy-Ra, held the title of Chief of Dentists and Physician to the King during Djoser’s reign.
Additional Medical Practices
Ancient Egyptian physicians recognized the pulse’s connection to the heart, although they did not comprehend blood circulation. They believed the body comprised a system of channels centered around the heart. Pus formation was seen as a sign of an evil spirit.
The Ancient Egyptians had methods to determine pregnancy, and they recommended various contraceptive techniques, such as injecting honey and natron into women’s private parts. Gender prediction was based on barley and emmer seed growth when moistened with urine, while remedies for headaches included a blend of ingredients applied to the head. To treat colds, incantations were performed, and Ostrich eggs were used to address fractured skulls.
Health and cleanliness were highly emphasized, with regular bathing and shaving as preventive measures against infections. Dietary guidelines urged the avoidance of unclean animals and raw fish.
Mummification played a significant role in Ancient Egyptian customs, guided by the belief that it would facilitate a positive afterlife for the deceased. The process included steps like brain removal through the nose, organ removal and preservation, and drying with natron. The body was then filled with stuffing, wrapped in linen, and placed inside a sarcophagus.
Ancient Egyptian Medical Practitioners
Both males and females were accepted as physicians in Ancient Egypt. Imhotep, a famous architect, was regarded as the first physician and deified as the god of medicine. Peseshet was a notable female physician, referred to as the “Lady Overseer of Female Physicians.”
Medical practitioners were often called “wabau,” meaning ritually pure. General practitioners were termed “swnw,” while those who specialized in magic were known as “sau.” Dentists were scarce, with Hesy-Ra being recognized as the world’s first-known dentist. Other prominent Egyptian physicians included Medunefer, Merit-Ptah (the first recorded female physician and scientist), Penthu, Qar, and Payeftjauemawyneith. Ancient Egyptian healthcare extended to midwives, masseurs, nurses, attendants, and seers.