The Advanced Egyptian Medical Library
1. International Reputations
Today’s familiar sign for prescription, Rx, originated in Ancient Egypt. In the 2nd century, Galen used mystic symbols to impress his patients. Accordingly, he borrowed the eye of Horus from Egyptian allegory. The story tells how Horus attacked his uncle Set (Seth) to avenge his father’s murder. In the fight, Horus’ eye was torn into fragments, whereupon Thoth (Tehuti) restored it for Horus.
The Egyptian eye symbol has gradually evolved into today’s familiar sign for prescription, Rx, which is used throughout the world no matter which language is used.
Many of the Egyptian remedies and prescriptions have been passed on to Europe via the writings of Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, and other Greek writers.
Warren R. Dawson, in The Legacy of Egypt, writes:
The works of the classical writers are…often merely the stepping-stones by which much of the ancient medical lore reached Europe, apart from direct borrowings…From Egypt we have the earliest medical books, the first observations in anatomy, the first experiments in surgery and pharmacy, the first use of splints, bandages, compresses and other appliances, and the first anatomical and medical vocabulary…
It is evident that the medical science of the Egyptians was sought and appreciated in foreign countries. Herodotus told us that Cyrus and Darius both sent to Egypt for medical men. In later times, too, they continued to be celebrated for their skill. Ammianus says it was enough for a doctor to say he had studied in Egypt, to recommend him. Pliny also mentioned medical men going from Egypt to Rome.
The care that the Egyptians took of their health was a source of astonishment for foreign observers; particularly Greeks and Romans. Pliny thought that the large number of doctors meant that the population of Egypt suffered from a great number of diseases—a paradoxical piece of logic. Herodotus, on the other hand, reported that there were no healthier people than the Egyptians.
2. The Medical Profession
The names and titles of more than a hundred doctors were determined from archaeological findings, with sufficient detail to uncover an overall picture of the medical practice. The name of Imhotep [3rd Dynasty] has become forever linked with Egyptian medicine, and he was later deified and identified with Asklepios, the Greek god of healing.
As far back as the Old Kingdom, the medical profession was highly organized, with doctors holding a variety of ranks and specialties. The ordinary doctor was outranked by the Overseer of Doctors, the Chief of Doctors, the Eldest of Doctors and the Inspector of Doctors. A distinction was made between physicians and surgeons.
Each physician was well-trained and practiced only in his area of specialization. Egyptian doctors were highly specialized. Herodotus points out that they could practice no branch other than their own.
There were eye doctors, bowel specialists (Guardians of the Anus), physicians who specialized in internal diseases who know the secrets of and specialized in body fluids, nose doctors, those who specialized in sicknesses of the upper air passages, doctors of the abdomen, and dentists.
The Conduct & Practice
Some surgical tools and instruments are depicted in tombs and temples, such as:
- The Tomb of Ankh-mahor at Saqqara, which contains several unique medical and surgical reliefs. Among them was a flint knife which some considered as evidence of its remote origin. The most recent surgical research vindicates the flint instruments of antiquity. It has been found that for certain neurological and optical operations, obsidian possesses qualities that cannot be matched by the finest steel, and an updated version of the old flint knife is coming back into use.
- On the outer corridor wall of the temple at Kom Ombo, a box of surgical instruments is carved in relief. The box includes metal shears, surgical knives, saws, probes, spatulas, small hooks and forceps.
Surgical operations were performed by the Ancient Egyptians, even in pre-dynastic times. Mummies were found with very neatly cut parts of their skulls, indicating a highly advanced level of brain surgery. A number of such skulls have been found, indicating the nature of the operations; and sometimes the severed section of the skull had knit to the parent bone, proving that the patient had survived the operation.
Although no surgical scars have been reported in mummies (apart from embalmers’ incisions), there are thirteen references to ‘stitching’ in the Smith Papyrus. The Papyrus also mentions wounds being brought together with adhesive tape which was made of linen. Linen was also available for bandages, ligatures and sutures. Needles were probably of copper.
Egyptian doctors distinguished between sterile (clean) wounds and infected (purulent) wounds. The former were written using the determinative for ‘blood’ or ‘phlegm’, and the latter, using the determinative for ‘stinking outflow’ or ‘feces’. A mixture of ibex fat, fir oil, and crushed peas were ingredients used as an ointment to clean an infected wound. Each temple had a full-scale laboratory where medications were made and stocked.
When the first Egyptian medical papyri were deciphered by German scholars, they were shocked. They called Egyptian medicine “sewage pharmacology” because Egyptians treated various inflammations, infections, and wounds by applying dung and similar substances.
The later invention of penicillin and antibiotics, in recent decades, has made us realize that the Ancient Egyptians were applying rudimentary and organic versions of these remedies. What the Germans described as “sewage pharmacology” was recently ratified as “modern medicine”. Moreover, Egyptians knew of the different types of antibiotics. Their prescriptions called for specific types of antibiotics to correspond to specific maladies.
Academia studying the Ancient Egyptian techniques of furnishing statues with inlaid eyes concluded that the Egyptians must have understood not only the anatomy of the eye, but also its refractive properties. The Egyptians approximated those properties by using combinations of stones and crystals (up to four different kinds, in a single eye). When photographs are taken of these Egyptian statues, the eyes actually look real.
3. The Medical Library
According to Clemens Alexandrinus, living in Alexandria in about 200 CE, the priests of Early Dynastic Egypt had written the sum total of their knowledge in 42 sacred books, which were kept in the temples and were carried in religious processions. Six of these books were concerned totally with medicine, and dealt with anatomy, diseases in general, surgery, remedies, eye diseases, and women’s diseases.
Several medical papyri have survived the ages. They contain prescriptions for treating diseases of the lungs, liver, stomach, and bladder, and for various afflictions of the head and scalp (including recipes for preventing hair from falling out or turning gray). They also contain prescriptions for rheumatic and arthritic complaints and for woman’s diseases.
Several other Egyptian papyri that deal with nonphysical ailments are dubbed as “magical papyri” by Western academia. The following is a summary of the major medical papyri:
Edwin Smith Papyrus
The Edwin Smith Papyrus has been dated to about 1600 BCE. The presence of Old Kingdom words in the text suggest that the Papyrus was copied from earlier work from around 2500 BCE, when the pyramids were built.
This is the earliest book of surgery in the world. It contains a total of 48 surgical cases of a traumatic nature, methodically arranged from the head and generally going down the body to the lower limbs.
Each case is preceded by a brief caption expressing a summary diagnosis, followed by another detailed diagnosis, a brief but clearly formulated prognosis, and sometimes, the therapy.
The diagnosis was established after extraordinarily precise observations had been made. In its conclusion, it proposed three possibilities: a doctor could act with full success, he could try with some chances of success, or he stood no chance at all; in which case, he should do nothing.
The techniques were numerous and varied. Fractures were properly set, splints were applied, and wounds were sutured. There was a sort of adhesive plaster that worked wonders with broken bones. Perfectly healed fractures can be seen in numerous mummies.
The most exciting sentences are to be found right at the beginning of this papyrus:
The counting of anything with the fingers [is done] to recognize the way the heart goes. There are vessels in it leading to every part of the body … When a Sekhmet priest, any doctor … puts his fingers to the head … to the two hands, to the place of the heart … it speaks … in every vessel, every part of the body.
The medical papyrus proves that the Egyptians understood the relationship of the heart to the circulation of the blood, that they believed the heart to be the source of life within the body, and that they felt the pulse and measured it by comparison with their own pulses.
The Egyptians also believed that all the ‘inner juices of the body’ flowed through vessels that radiated from the heart and collected at the anus, whence they could again be redistributed to various parts of the body. Air, blood, urine, mucus, semen, and feces flowed around the system; usually in harmony, but occasionally getting out of hand and thence causing an illness.
The Smith Papyrus contains what is probably the first documented description of the human brain:
When you examine a man with a … wound on his head, which goes to the bone; his skull is broken; broken open is the brain of his skull … these windings which arise in poured metal. Something is there … that quivers (and) flutters under your fingers like the weak spot in the head of a child which has not yet grown hard … Blood flows from his two nostrils.
Advances in modern neurology prove that the Egyptians understood, in detail, the workings of the nervous system and the relationship between areas of the brain and the manner in which these areas controlled bodily functions.
Ebers Medical Papyrus
The date of origin of the Ebers Medical Papyrus is about 1555 BCE. It is considered to be a manual for teaching anatomy and pharmacy. It contains 876 remedies and mentions 500 different substances used in medical treatments.
The Ebers Papyrus describes the treatment of and prescriptions for stomach complaints, coughs, colds, bites, head ailments and diseases, liver complaints, burns and other kinds of wounds, itching, boils, cysts and the like, complaints of fingers and toes, salves for wounds and pains in the veins, muscles and nerves, diseases of the tongue, toothache, ear pains, women’s diseases, beauty preparations, household remedies against vermin, two books about the heart and veins, and diagnoses for tumors.
The Berlin Papyrus has been dated between 1350 and 1200 BCE.
It deals with childbirth and infants.
It contains a test for pregnancy which recognized that urine carried the pregnancy factor. It calls for steeping some wheat and some barley in her urine. If the wheat sprouts, it will be a boy; if the barley sprouts, it will be a girl.
In 1963, Ghalioungui found that whilst urine from non-pregnant women prevented the growth of (modern) barley and wheat, it proved impossible to detect the sex of an unborn child from the rate of growth of either grain; possibly because the grains and soils were both different in Ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, the fact that the Egyptians recognized that urine carried the pregnancy factor was remarkable. The standardization of reliable urine tests for pregnancy did not occur until 1929.
It is astounding to know that this Egyptian recipe found its way to Europe; for in an ingenious book of the 17th century, Peter Boyer wrote:
Make two holes in the ground, throw barley into the one and wheat into the other, then pour into both the water of the pregnant woman, and cover them up again with earth. If the wheat shoots up before the barley, it will be a boy, but if the barley comes up first, thou must expect a daughter.
There is also a little English book, called The Experienced Midwife, in which this recipe appears in a somewhat modified form.
The Hearst Papyrus
This has been dated to about 1550 BCE, and it appears to be the guideline for a practicing physician. It contains over 250 prescriptions and spells and has a section on bones and bites, afflictions of fingers, tumors, burns, and diseases of women, ears, eyes, and teeth.
4. Cures & Prescriptions
The Ancient Egyptians had full knowledge of the uses of herbs and natural therapies, to the extent that they perfected the procedure of embalming the corpses of their dead – a feat which modern man is yet unable to conquer.
The various prescriptions in the Ebers and Hearst papyri, as well as other medical papyri, are quite rational, and present natural applications for the alleviation of symptoms. These prescriptions are the product of knowledge of general physiological properties and the actions of plants, animals and minerals as well as the human body.
The Ebers Papyrus alone contains 876 remedies and mentions 500 substances used in medical treatment. It gives recipes for many remedies, such as plasters, balms, and ointments of vegetable, mineral, and also animal origin.
The ingredients were sometimes crushed and other times boiled or blended. Some were sifted through a piece of fabric or diluted with clear water, beer, wine, oil, or milk.
From the Ebers Papyrus, we learn that a single prescription may include as many as 35 substances.
Prescriptions were given in different forms; either as a drink or in the form of pills or as a rubbing oil or fermentation. Some prescriptions were inhaled.
They weighed and measured their prescriptions very carefully.
Dosages of medicine varied according to the age, weight, and sex of the patient.
Medical plants were well known. Medical plants not native to Egypt were imported from outside Egypt. Fir came from Syria and Asia Minor. iIs pungent resin was invaluable as an antiseptic and an embalming material. Oil of fir was used as an anthelmintic, and to clean infected wounds. From eastern Africa came aloe, used to ‘expel catarrh from the nose’, and cinnamon, an essential ingredient in an unguent for ulcerated gums, and in incense.
An important constituent in most remedies was honey. Honey is highly resistant to bacterial growth. It also has an antibiotic action due to the presence of a bactericidal enzyme called inhibine. In modern studies, honey has proven to be effective against staphylococcus, salmonella, and candida bacteria. It is also used to treat surgical wounds, burns, and ulcers, having more rapid healing qualities than conventional treatment.
Another bee product, called propolis (bee glue), is a hard, resinous material derived by bees from plant juices, and is used by bees to seal cracks in their hives. Propolis also has antibiotic as well as preservative properties. A small mouse, which crept into an Ancient Egyptian hive 3,000 years ago, was found perfectly preserved, covered with propolis and with no sign of decomposition.
Beer is also mentioned as an agent by which many drugs were administered, and beer was a popular and healthy drink.
They knew and used the benefits of yeast, applying it raw to boils and ulcers and swallowing it to clear digestive disorders. Yeast contains vitamin B as well as antibiotic agents.
Earlier, we mentioned the use of antibiotics to treat wounds or open sores in Ancient Egypt.
In summary, Ancient Egypt was highly advanced and appreciated for its medical products, which Pliny frequently made references to in his writings.
Homer, in the Odyssey, describes the many valuable medicines given by Polydamna, the wife of Thonis, to Helen, while in Egypt:
… a country whose fertile soil produces an infinity of drugs, some salutary and some pernicious; where each physician possesses knowledge above all other men.
[An excerpt from Ancient Egyptian: Culture Revealed, Second Edition by Moustafa Gadalla]