Ancient Egyptian Medicine


Ancient Egyptian practices various forms of medicine. The ‘Smith Papyrus’, and to a lesser extent the ‘Ebers Papyrus’, give us a veryfavorable idea of the medicine, anatomy, and physiology of the Egyptians

The earliest physician whose name has been recorded, Imhotep,” was the wazir of Zoser, founder of the Third Dynasty, in the thirtieth century. Imhotep was a learned man, astronomer, physician, architect (he may have been the builder of the first pyramid, the step pyramid of Saqqara). In later times he was worshiped as a hero, as a blameless physician, and later still as the god of medicine, the prototype of Asclepios (even as the learned God Thoth was the prototype of Hermes and Mercury). We know precious little about Imhotep’s medical knowledge but his apotheosis is significant and we may well take him at the Egyptian valuation as the first great man in medicine.

Not only were there many physicians in the Pyramid Age, but there were very specialized ones. The skill of an early dentist is beautifully illustrated by a mandible found in a tomb of the Fourth Dynasty (2900-2750), in which an alveolar process was pierced to drain an abscess under the first molar. From the tombstone of Iry, chief physician to a pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty (2625-2475), we learn that he was also “palace eye physician” and “palace stomach bowel physician” and bore the titles “one understanding the internal fluids” and “guardian of the anus.”

The medical papyri that have come to us, seven or more, are relatively late. They date from the Twelfth Dynasty to the Twentieth (2000 to 1090), but most of them reflect professedly earlier knowledge, going back to the Old Kingdom, as far back as the Fourth Dynasty. The two earliest papyri, the Kahun and the Gardiner fragments (c. 2000), deal with diseases of women, children, and cattle. The two Most important ones, the so-called Smith and Ebers papyri, date from the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries B.C.

The Smith one is of the same age as the Rhind mathematical papyrus. Roughly speaking, we may say that the outstanding, mathematical and medical treatises that have come to us are of the same period, the the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the NewKingdom just prior the imperial age, when Egypt dominated the world.

Let us consider more carefully the two outstanding, the Smith and the Ebers, both of which are much larger than any others. On the basis of the figure given by Sarton, the seven medical papyri listed by him include 3746 lines, the Smith has 469 lines and the Ebers 2289, so that together they have 2758 lines, which is almost 74 percent of the total.

As all the manuscripts are ultimately derived from similar Old Kingdom sources, we may safely assume that the study of the Ebers and the Smith papyri will give us a fair knowledge of ancient Egyptian medicine. We shall begin with the younger one, the Ebers papyrus, because it is by far the largest (almost five times as large as the Smith) and was the best known until very recent times. The difference in age is small anyhow, about a century, and negligible if one bears in mind that both texts represent older traditions.

The Ebers Papyrus

It appears that the Ebers papyrus was written somewhat later than the Smith papyrus, but this has not as yet been conclusively proven. It was said to have been found between the legs of a mummy in the Assassif district of the Theben necropolis.

The Ebers papyrus is a roll 20.23 m long and 30 cm high; the text is distributed in 108 columns of 20 to 22 lines each. It contains 877 recipes concerning a great variety of diseases or symptoms. Spells are recommended only in twelve cases and in other cases the therapeutics does not seem irrational, though we are seldom able to understand either the trouble or the remedy.

The Ebers Papyrus comprises 110 pages, and is by far the most lengthy of the medical papyri. It is dated by a passage on the verso to the 9th year of the reign of Amenhotep I (c. 1534 B.C.E.), a date which is close to the extant copy of the Edwin Smith Papyrus. However, one portion of the papyrus suggests a much earlier origin.

Paragraph 856a states that : “the book of driving wekhedu from all the limbs of a man was found in writings under the two feet of Anubis in Letopolis and was brought to the majesty of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt Den.” The reference to the Lower Egyptian Den is a historic anachronism which suggesting an origin closer to the First Dynasty (c. 3000 B.C.E.)

The Ebers Papyrus consists of a collection of a myriad of different medical texts in a rather haphazard order, a fact which explains the presence of the above mentioned excerpt. The structure of the papyrus is organized by paragraph, each of which are arranged into blocks addressing specific medical ailments.

  • Recitals before medical treatment, to increase the virtue of the remedy.
  • Internal medical diseases. Diseases of the eye.
  • Diseases of the skin (with an appendix of sundries).
  • Diseases of the extremities. Miscellinea (especially diseases of the head, for example, of the tongue, teeth, nose, and ears, and cosmetics).
  • Diseases of women (and matters concerning housekeeping).
  • Information of an anatomic, physiologic, and pathologic nature, and explanation of words.
  • Surgical diseases

    The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus is, without a doubt, one if the most important documents pertaining to medicine in the ancient Nile Valley.

    The Edwin Smith papyrus is second in length only to the Ebers papyrus, comprising seventeen pages (377 lines) on the recto and five pages (92 lines) on the verso. Both the recto and the verso are written with the same hand in a style of Middle Egyptian dating. It is 33 cm high and was probably 5 m long, but the beginning has been lost and it now measures 4.70 m. lt is a copy of a much older text, dating back to the Pyramid Age, perhaps even early in that age, let us say the thirtieth century. After it had circulated for some generations it was found that its terms were antiquated.

    Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, say in the twenty-sixth century, a learned physician had the idea of rejuvenating it by the addition of glosses (69 in all), explaining obsolete terms and discussing dubious matters. (N.B. the Papyrus Ebers has also some glosses, 26 in all, but they have been badly messed up). These glosses constitute the most valuable part of the papyrus. The text as we have it now comprises two very distinct parts – 17 columns (377 lines) on the front and 4.5 columns (92 lines) on the back. The latter part contains only recipes and incantations and need not detain us. The main part is a surgical treatise, informed by a scientific spirit far superior to that of the Ebers papyrus.

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