Medicine – Part Two

Ancient Egypt

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

We wuz Kangz! Around 3,000 B.C. we start to see the foundation of ancient civilisations, for example in Egypt. Egypt conquered a number of lands to form an empire, and was in turn conquered itself numerous times. For background:

Ancient Egypt was a civilization of ancient Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in the place that is now the country Egypt. Egyptian civilization followed prehistoric Egypt and coalesced around 3100 BC (according to conventional Egyptian chronology) with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Menes (often identified with Narmer). The history of ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable kingdoms, separated by periods of relative instability known as Intermediate Periods: the Old Kingdom of the Early Bronze Age, the Middle Kingdom of the Middle Bronze Age and the New Kingdom of the Late Bronze Age.

Egypt reached the pinnacle of its power in the New Kingdom, ruling much of Nubia and a sizable portion of the Near East, after which it entered a period of slow decline. During the course of its history Egypt was invaded or conquered by a number of foreign powers, including the Hyksos, the Libyans, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Achaemenid Persians, and the Macedonians under the command of Alexander the Great. The Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom, formed in the aftermath of Alexander’s death, ruled Egypt until 30 BC, when, under Cleopatra, it fell to the Roman Empire and became a Roman province.-Infogalactic

(Isn’t the diversity of people across North Africa during antiquity amazing? Maybe someone should tell the BBC.)

Key to Egyptian civilisation was the Nile river and its fertile valley. This allowed a settled lifestyle using farming to produce food in contrast to previous hunter-gatherer lifestyles. People then form settlements in those places. They became rich as they could trade food. Indeed after Egypt became a part of the Roman Empire it fed the enormous (for the time) populace of Rome. The Nile delta was made up of many channels. The Egyptian decided that the body could work in the same way. Illnesses could be caused by blockages in the channels and removing the blockages could cure them.

The river Nile

Crucial to this period is that things started to be written down. Ideas could then be spread across the kingdom and beyond. They also handily had plenty of papyrus to write it on. This led to the key practice of observation. Doctors would record symptoms of a disease or condition and how it progressed. Cures and treatments that worked and didn’t work could be recorded. The Ebers papyrus c. 1550 BC is full of incantations and foul applications meant to turn away disease-causing demons, and also includes a number of prescriptions.  It may also contain the earliest documented awareness of tumours.

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal
The Ebers papyrus

The Egyptians wealth allowed trade with other nations to become even wealthier. Merchants could also travel and bring back new ideas, and also spread Egyptian ideas. Thanks to writing and papyrus these could be recorded. New herbs for medicinal treatments could be traded for. There is some evidence to suggest Egyptian merchants were in contact with India and China. Another effect of this was that Egyptian doctors became famous.

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal
Egypt had strong central government

Egypt had a strong centralised government in the form of the Pharaohs (Kangz). Writing allowed for a more effective communication. The set up an administration of scribes and priests. Many of these practiced medicine. One of these was known as Imhotep, who was later revered as a god after his death as the founder of Egyptian medicine. Using their wealth the Egyptians were able to build medical schools to train doctors. This meant there were numerous doctors available to people for treatments. Eventually a library was founded in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic (Macedonian) dynasties. This aided research and the retention of knowledge, and doctors from around the world would go there to study.

Partly due to religion they started to use latrines and bathe regularly. If you need your body for the afterlife, then you need to look after it. Egyptians were also worried about illness. In the 5th Century Herodotus writes “…the Egyptians purge themselves … for they think that all diseases stem from the foods they eat … They wear newly washed linen clothing. They practise circumcision for the sake of cleanliness. Twice a day and every night they wash in cold water.”

By far the most famous and arguably important factor in medicine’s progress at this time was mummification. The body was preserved for the afterlife. Part of this process required the removal of the internal organs. Because of this the Egyptian priests, who were also often doctors, learned some of the internal workings of the body and what the organs looked like. However, they did not perform dissections because the body had to remain intact.

Egyptians had a belief in the supernatural and that it could influence health. Magic and religion were an integral part of everyday life in ancient Egypt. Evil gods and demons were thought to be responsible for many ailments, so often the treatments involved a supernatural element, such as beginning treatment with an appeal to a deity. There does not appear to have existed a clear distinction between what nowadays one would consider the very distinct callings of priest and physician. The healers, many of them priests of Sekhmet, often used incantations and magic as part of treatment.

The widespread belief in magic and religion may have resulted in a powerful placebo effect; that is, the perceived validity of the cure may have contributed to its effectiveness. The impact of the emphasis on magic is seen in the selection of remedies or ingredients for them. Ingredients were sometimes selected seemingly because they were derived from a substance, plant or animal that had characteristics which in some way corresponded to the symptoms of the patient. This is known as the principle of simila similibus (“similar with similar”) and is found throughout the history of medicine up to the modern practice of homeopathy. Thus an ostrich egg is included in the treatment of a broken skull, and an amulet portraying a hedgehog might be used against baldness.

Jonathon Davies, Going Postal

Amulets in general, were very popular. They were worn for many magical purposes. Health related amulets are classified as homeopoetic, phylactic and theophoric. Homeopoetic amulets portray an animal or part of an animal, from which the wearer hopes to gain positive attributes like strength or speed. Phylactic amulets protected against harmful gods and demons. The famous Eye of Horus was often used on a phylactic amulet. Theophoric amulets represented Egyptian gods; one represented the girdle of Isis and was intended to stem the flow of blood at miscarriage. They were often made of bone, hanging from a leather strap“.-Infogalactic

On the rational side the Egyptians were able to carry out minor surgical procedures. Metal surgical tools were discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs show surgery was a common treatment. The Egyptian physicians recognized three categories of injuries; treatable, contestable, and untreatable ailments. Treatable ailments the surgeons would quickly set to right. Contestable ailments were those where the victim could presumably survive without treatment, so patients assumed to be in this category were observed and if they survived then surgical attempts could be made to fix the problem with them.

Ancient Egyptians knew the medicinal properties of the plant life around them. In the Edwin Papyrus  there are many recipes to help heal different ailments. In a small section of this papyrus there are five recipes one dealing with problems women may have had, three on techniques for refining the complexion, and the fifth recipe for ailments that deal with the colon. The Ancient Egyptians were known to use “Honey…for its medicinal properties…and the juice of pomegranates served as both an astringent and a delicacy. In the Ebers Papyrus there are over 800 remedies some were topical like ointments, and wrappings, others were taken orally like pills and mouth rinses, still others were taken through inhalation.

Overall there were advances in Egyptian medicine. Some basic knowledge of internal anatomy was gained and basic surgery could be performed successfully. Doctors were starting to form theories of disease. Writing helped enormously to spread ideas and record treatments. Herbal remedies and common sense cures continued to be practiced. Alongside these the supernatural side of medicine continued through religion and the priesthood. Although improvements had been made life expectancy hadn’t increased that much compared to other societies. So check your privilege, we are off to ancient Greece…

© Jonathon Davies 2018

(Some information obtained from and Wikipedia where attributed. Photos obtained from the Public Domain.)

Audio file