Medical practice in ancient Egypt was so developed that many of the observations and routine procedures the Western world could not surpass for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was ancient Egyptian medicine that became a source of knowledge for doctors of ancient Greece and Rome.
The Egyptians understood that the disease can be treated with pharmaceuticals, recognized the therapeutic potential of massage and aromatherapy, attached great importance to purity in the treatment of patients.
The fact that bacteria and bacteria can become a source of diseases and infections Known even after the invention of the microscope – only in the XIX century, when this theory was confirmed by Louis Pasteur and proved by the work of the British surgeon Joseph Lister. However, even before their statements, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis in the XIX century suggested that doctors can reduce the death rate among patients by simply washing their hands before examination or an operation.
The ancient Egyptians would certainly agree with the idea of Semmelweis, since they highly appreciated the purity. In Ancient Egypt, mortality after medical procedures was probably less than in any European hospital during the Christian era.
The Egyptians were well aware of how to cope with injuries, but with illnesses everything was much more complicated. When a person is injured, it is easy to trace the cause and effect, and then cure. However, when a person is sick, the cause is less clear, and diagnosis was a big problem.
The cause of the disease was usually understood as the consequence of sin or the attack of demons. Therefore, the first “doctors” tried to save the patient from the ailment by casting spells. In addition, amulets, offerings to the gods, tattoos and statuettes designed to drive away evil spirits or soothe the gods that caused the disease went into the process.
Since that time, many papyri surviving spells have been preserved. In some of them you can find and practical ways of treatment. For example, a papyrus dating from 1200 BC, prescribes the use of marijuana for cancer patients.
Another papyrus, written by scientists in the years 1570-1069 BC, describes the first-ever methods of contraception and pregnancy tests.
Infectious diseases were widespread in the densely populated Nile Valley. Virtually the entire population of Egypt then lived on a narrow strip of land along the river, which was sometimes only a few hundred meters wide. Diseases could be distinguished depending on the season.
Smallpox, dysentery, typhoid and jaundice most often overtook the Egyptians in spring and summer. Every year, the goddess Isis shed tears for her late husband Osiris, and the water level of the Nile rose from mid-July to September. Together with the fertile mud that helped the Egyptians survive, the river brought with it a specific set of diseases, the main one of which probably was malaria – the main cause of death in late autumn. The cooler weather in the winter favored the onset of respiratory diseases.
One of the most common complaints among the Egyptians were eye infections. We fought with it with the help of bactericidal eye paint and drugs from the human brain. This is how one of the universal recipes looks like, which should have been relieved not only of eye infection, but also of all the problems in the body: “Divide the human brain into two halves, mix half with honey, smear on the eye in the evening. Dry the second half, sift, smear the eye in the morning. ”
Heavy physical labor caused great damage to the joints and bones of workers. Those who lived to be old were victims of the same ailments that older people still suffer: cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and probably dementia.
A limited diet caused or aggravated a number of diseases, and in some cases even led to death. In ancient Egyptian history there were times when famine spread throughout the country. The data of ancient dentistry papyri testify that during most of such periods the health of the population deteriorated significantly, but with more active introduction of agriculture these problems were brought to nothing.
The scanty diet influenced the growth of the Egyptians. The average height of men did not exceed 160 cm, women – 150 cm.
Nothing definite is known about how doctors received their medical knowledge. Historians suggest that after the Egyptian received the profession of a scribe, he became a disciple of a practicing healer. There is also the opinion that the “houses of life” associated with the goddess Sekhmet, the patroness of doctors, were training centers for doctors.
Goddess Sekhmet, bas-relief
Healers in ancient Egypt could be both men and women. The first doctor, later deified, was Imhotep, who combined the writing of medical labors with the construction of the stepped pyramid of Djoser in Sakkara and was also a famous architect.
It was Imhotep who became the ancestor of secular medicine: he claimed that the disease originated in a natural way and was in no way connected with the spirits or revenge of the gods.
Statue of Imhotep
The doctor was supposed to be not only literate, but also a pure soul and body. In Egypt they were called “wabau” – ritually pure: they had to bathe as often and carefully as the high priests.
Each doctor had his own specialty, but there were “suna” – general practitioners, and “sau”, who specialized in magical rituals. Midwives, masseurs, nurses, attendants and visionaries also helped the doctor.
Obstetrics, apparently, was the only female profession in ancient Egypt. After studying medical texts written mostly by men, scientists found that they had a lot of information on gynecology in general, but none described obstetrics. In addition, men have never been portrayed in childbirth scenes.
There are no certificates of medical training for midwives. In the Ancient Kingdom (during the reign of the Pharaohs of the III-VI dynasty), the word “midwife” is associated with nurses who helped the doctor, but after this period the connection between these two professions has been lost. Midwives could be female relatives, friends or neighbors. Apparently, they were not considered medical specialists.
Both men and women could perform the work of nurses. The Egyptians greatly respected the nurses, although, like in the case of midwives, there is nowhere any evidence of school or vocational training. Most of all, nursing nurses were valued.
Women regularly died during childbirth, and in legal documents of that time there were agreements between wet nurses and families about the care of a newborn in the event of the mother’s death. Nurses who helped with the upbringing of children were given such respect that during the New Kingdom (the era of the highest heyday of the ancient Egyptian state) they were associated with the divine.
Ancient Egyptian dentistry grew out of the established medical profession, but it did not develop particularly widely. Ancient Egyptians suffered from dental problems throughout the history of civilization, but why dentists were not enough (or mentioned too seldom), is still not clear.
The first known dentist in the world became Hesire – the chief dentist at the court of Djoser (circa 2700 BC). Problems with the teeth arose mainly because of the consumption of rough bread and the inability to completely remove sand from their food. Dentists used to treat the teeth of honey and herbs, presumably to stop the infection or alleviate the pain. Some mummies have found tooth bridges and gold teeth. It is not known whether they were in the mouth during the life of the owner, or were added in the process of embalming.
The ruler of Hatshepsut (1479 -1458 BC) died of an abscess of the tooth. Such cases were not uncommon among her subjects. It was assumed that toothaches and other problems were caused by a toothworm, which had to be cast out by magical spells. This belief, most likely, arose in Mesopotamia, in particular among the Sumerians, whose cuneiform records found spells against the toothworm.
In addition to magic, Egyptian dentists used the healing power of herbs in their work. So, to rid their patients of bad breath, they prepared chewing gum from honey, cinnamon, myrrh, incense and pignon. There is evidence of tooth extraction with opium used as an anesthetic.
Faith in magic was deeply rooted in Egyptian culture and was considered natural and normal, like any other aspect of life. The god of magic Huck was also the god of medicine. On all the images he carries a staff, entwined with two snakes. This symbol subsequently passed to the Greeks, who associated him with the god of healing Asclepius, who is today known as the caduceus of the medical profession. And although the caduceus, no doubt, traveled from Egypt to Greece, he also appeared in Sumer as the staff of Ninazu, the son of the Sumerian goddess of healing Gul.
In addition to Huck, there were many other important healing gods, such as Sekhmet, Serket (also known as Selket) , Sebek and Nefertum. The Serketa priests were all doctors, although not every doctor was a member of her cult. To Sobek, the god of crocodiles, he was treated during surgical operations and invasive procedures. Nefertum, the god of spirits associated with lotus and healing, was called for in procedures that today would be called aromatherapy.
Pharmaceutical preparations of ancient Egyptian medical priests included antacids, copper salts, turpentine, alum, astringents, alkaline laxatives, diuretics, sedatives, spasmalytics, calcium carbonate and magnesia. The dosage of medicines was carefully prescribed in medical papyri, the way the medicine should be taken orally (for example, with wine or food) was indicated.
Surgical procedures were common, and many instruments of that time in one form or another Are used today. The Egyptians had flint and metal scalpels, pliers, bone saws, probes, catheters, clamps to stop bleeding, speckles, tweezers, vein lancets, sponges, scissors, vials, linen bands and scales for calculating medicinal doses.
Surgical operations were most often successful, as evidenced by mummies and other found remains that survived amputation and even operations on the brain. Also, prostheses, usually carved from a tree, were found.
However, not all medical practices were the same in Egypt. For example, circumcision was a religious ritual in which boys between the ages of 10 and 14 were subjected to surgery, and meant a transition from adolescence to masculine. Usually it was performed by doctors who at the same time were priests of the temple. They used a silicon blade and cast spells, but despite all the precautions, this procedure still sometimes led to infection.
Because the nature of the infection was unknown to the Egyptians, it was considered the result of supernatural influence. This approach, most likely, led to the death of many young people.
Egyptian physicians were in great demand in the Ancient World, despite the fact that, probably, little new knowledge appeared after 2000 BC. Their treatment was based on examination and diagnosis. The description of the case – the most demanding work of a doctor – lasted longer than the diagnosis or recommended treatment.
In general, the treatment was conservative: if the medicine for the disease was unknown, then the doctor took some steps that would not jeopardize the patient’s life or removed the symptoms. For example, some head wounds, which were then considered incurable, were treated with an ointment that prevents infection.
Although the embalmers of Egypt came to understand how the organs they removed from the bodies were related to each other, this knowledge was not shared with the doctors. These two professions developed in completely different directions, and the fact that each of them did work in its direction was not considered relevant for another.
A special attitude among the ancient Egyptians has developed with such an organ of the human body as the heart. In addition to being recognized as a “pump”, the heart was also considered the center of emotions, personality and intellect. For this reason, the hearts of the deceased were preserved, and the brain was scraped and discarded, as a useless organ.
Although they recognized liver disease, the Egyptians did not have an understanding of its functions. In ancient Egypt, regularly engaged in problems of miscarriages and infertility, but the mechanism of these processes were very vague ideas. The support of the whole culture for the supernatural help of the gods prevented the Egyptians from exploring more immediate and practical solutions to the medical problems they faced every day.
Nevertheless, the Egyptian physician was highly respected for his skills and knowledge, was called to the court by pharaohs and Nobles of other nations. The Greeks especially admired the Egyptian doctors, and adopted a number of beliefs and methods from them. Later such famous physicians of Rome and Greece as Galen and Hippocrates studied Egyptian texts and symbols, thus transferring traditions and knowledge to our days.