Ancient Egypt was a civilization that lasted from 3300 to 525 B.C.E. This is probably where the concept of health started. Some of the earliest records of medical care come from ancient Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians believed in prayer as a solution to health problems, but they also had natural, or practical, remedies, such as herbs.
It was a structured society with tools such as written language and mathematics, which enabled them to record and develop ideas, and it meant that others could learn from them.
The ancient Egyptians thought that gods, demons, and spirits played a key role in causing diseases.
Doctors believed that spirits blocked channels in the body and that this affected the way the body worked. They looked for ways to unblock these channels. They used a combination of prayer and natural — or non-spiritual — remedies.
Most healers were also priests, but, in time, the profession of a “doctor of medicine” emerged.
The fact that ancient Egyptians had systems of letters and numbers meant they were able to record and develop ideas and make calculations. Documented ancient Egyptian medical literature is among the oldest in existence today.
The ancient Egyptians had an organized economy and system of government, a settled population, social conventions, and properly enforced laws. Before this, the local people mainly lived a nomadic life.
This stability allowed medical research to develop.
In addition, there were also relatively wealthy individuals in ancient Egyptian society. They could afford some health care and also had time to ponder and study.
The ancient Egyptians were also traders. They traveled long distances, coming back with herbs and spices from faraway lands.
Research and learning
The ancient Egyptians’ practice of preserving deceased people as mummies meant that they learned something about how the human body works.
In one process, the priest-doctor inserted a long, hooked implement through the nostril and broke the thin bone of the brain case to remove the brain.
Kings and queens from faraway lands sought Egyptian doctors because of their reputation for excellence.
Archaeologists have found a number of written records that describe ancient Egyptian medical practice, including the Ebers papyrus.
This document contains over 700 remedies and magical formulas and scores of incantations aimed at repelling demons that cause disease.
The authors probably wrote them around 1500 B.C.E., but the document may contain copies of material dating back to 3400 B.C.E. They are among the oldest preserved medical documents in existence.
The scroll provides evidence of some sound scientific procedures.
Doctors appear to have had fairly good knowledge about bone structure and some awareness of how the brain and liver worked.
The heart: According to the Ebers Papyrus, the center of the body’s blood supply is the heart, and every corner of the body is attached to vessels. The heart was the meeting point for vessels that carried tears, urine, semen, and blood. Researchers writing in 2014 described ancient Egyptian understanding of the cardiovascular system as “surprisingly sophisticated, if not accurate.
Mental illness: The document describes in detail the characteristics, causes, and treatment for mental disorders such as dementia and depression. The ancient Egyptians appear to have seen mental diseases as a combination of blocked channels and the influence of evil spirits and angry Gods.
Family planning: The scroll contains a section on birth control, how to tell if a person is pregnant, and some other gynecological issues.
There is also advice about:
- skin problems
- dental problems
- diseases related to the eyes
- intestinal disease
- how to surgically treat an abscess or a tumor
In addition, there is evidence that doctors knew how to set broken bones and treat burns.
Some recommendations that physicians made then seem fairly sound to us now.
They advised people to wash and shave their bodies to prevent infections, to eat carefully, and to avoid unclean animals and raw fish.
Some, however, are less familiar. Putting a plug of crocodile dung into the entrance of the vagina, for example, was a method of birth control. People also used dung to disperse evil spirits.
The Egyptians also practiced dentistry. Caries and tooth decay appear to have been common.
- cumin, incense, and onion to treat swollen gums
- opium, possibly, to treat pain pain
- drilling holes into the jaw to drain an abscess
However, they do not seem to have extracted teeth.
Everyday life in Egypt involved beliefs and fear of magic, gods, demons, evils spirits, and so on. They believed that the gods created and controlled life.
Heka was the goddess of magic and medicine, while Bes, another god, protected women during pregnancy. People called upon Serket if they had a scorpion bite.
Angry gods or evil forces caused bad luck and disaster, so people used magic and religion to deal with these forces and to treat people.
Priests and doctors were often one and the same. Many healers were priests of Sekhmet, an Egyptian warrior goddess and the goddess of healing, curses, and threats.
As well as science, treatment involved the use of magic, incantations, amulets, aromas, offerings, tattoos, and statues.
The religious and magic rituals and procedures probably had a powerful placebo effect, so they may have resulted in healing.
The “channel theory” came from observing farmers who dug out irrigations channels for their crops. It allowed medicine to move from entirely spiritual cures towards practical, natural ones.
The doctors believed that, as in irrigation, channels provide the body with routes for good health. If blockages occurred, they used laxatives to unblock them.
The heart was the center of 46 channels, seen as types of tubes.
It is true that human veins, arteries, and intestines are types of tubes. However, the Egyptians did not understand that these channels had different functions.
This idea that bodily function played a role in health was a breakthrough in the history of medicine.
Channels and the heart
The ancient Egyptians believed that the body consisted of a system of channels, or “Metu.”
One researcher notes that they believed that bodily fluids could enter this system, including feces. This would have a negative effect, and enemas became an important method of treatment for many conditions, including malaria and smallpox.
The Ebers Papyrus notes that vessels run from the heart to all four limbs and every part of the body.
When a doctor, Sekmet priest, or exorcist places their hands on any part of the body, they are examining the heart, because all vessels come from the heart.
Channel theory holds that:
- The heart is the source. It speaks out to each part of the body.
- When people breathe in through the nose, the air enters their heart, lungs, and then the belly.
- The nostrils have four vessels, two of which provide mucus and two provide blood.
- The human body has four vessels, which lead to two ears. The “breath of life” enters the right ear and “breath of death” enters the left ear.
- Four vessels that lead to the head cause baldness.
- All eye diseases come from four vessels in the forehead, which supply blood to the eyes.
- Two vessels enter the testicles and provide semen.
- Two vessels in the buttocks supply them with vital nutrients.
- Six vessels reach the soles of the feet and six lead down the arms to the fingers.
- Two vessels supply the bladder with urine.
- Four vessels supply the liver with liquid and air. When they overfill the liver with blood, they cause diseases.
- Four vessels also supply the lungs and spleen with liquid and air.
- The liquid and air that come out of the anus come from four vessels.
- The anus is also exposed to all the vessels in the arms and legs when they overflow with waste.
Egyptian physicians underwent training and could successfully fix broken bones and dislocated joints.
Basic surgery — meaning procedures close to the surface of the skin or on the skin — was a common skill, and doctors knew how to stitch wounds effectively.
They used bandages and would bind certain plant products, such as willow leaves, into the bandages to treat inflammation.
However, they did not perform surgery deep inside the body, probably because there were no anesthetics or antiseptics.
Circumcision of baby boys was common practice. It is hard to tell whether female circumcision existed. There is one mention, but this may be a mistranslation.
Surgeons had an array of instruments, such as pincers, forceps, spoons, saws, containers with burning incense, hooks, and knives.
Prosthetics existed, but they were probably not very practical. People may have used them to make deceased people look more presentable during funerals or simply for decorative purposes.
Egyptian doctors said there were three types of injuries:
Treatable injuries: They dealt with these immediately.
Contestable injuries: The doctor believed these were not life-threatening and that the person could survive without intervention. The doctor would observe the patient. If they survived, the doctor would decide in time whether to intervene.
Untreatable ailments: The doctor would not intervene.
Common complaints included:
- the common cold
- digestive problems
A remedy for headaches, mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, appears to advise the following:
Mash together flour, incense, wood of wa, waneb plant, mint, a horn of a stag, sycamore seeds, mason’s plaster, seeds of zart, water. Apply to the head.
Another remedy is to use poppy seeds or aloe.
Other conditions and treatments include:
- Asthma: Honey and milk, sesame, frankincense
- Burns and skin disease: Aloe
- Pain: Thyme
- Digestive problems: Juniper, mint, garlic, and sandalwood
- Bad breath: Mint, caraway
- Epilepsy: Camphor
- Vomiting: Mint to stop it and mustard seeds to cause it
The cure for a cold was an incantation.
Early concepts of homeopathy
Some treatments used products or herbs or plants that looked similar to the illness they were treating, a practice known as simila similibus, or similar with similar.
Today, homeopathy follows a similar principle.
In Egyptian times, people used ostrich eggs to treat a fractured skull.
Cleanliness was an important part of Egyptian life, and homes had rudimentary baths and toilets. Appearance and the use of make-up were important.
The main aim was to meet social and religious requirements, although many people wore make-up around their eyes to protect them from disease.
People used mosquito nets during the hot months, whether to protect against malaria and other diseases or to avoid bites. Malaria was a common problem.
Priests washed themselves, their clothing, and their eating utensils regularly. This helped to protect their health, although they did it for religious reasons.
There was no public health infrastructure as we know of today. There were no sewage systems, systematic medical care, or public hygiene.
The ancient Egyptians were probably the first people to have professional doctors, and it was a respected occupation.
According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, they had to be literate and clean in body and spirit. There were doctors all over Egypt.
The earliest ever record of a male physician was Hesy-Ra in 2700 B.C.E. He was was “Chief of Dentists and Doctors” to King Dioser.
The first record of a female doctor was probably Peseshet in 2400 B.C.E., the supervisor of all female doctors, but there may have been female doctors as early as 3000 B.C.E.
The top doctors worked in the royal court. Below them, inspectors would supervise the work of other doctors. There were specialists, such as dentists, proctologists, gastroenterologists, and ophthalmologists.
A proctologist — or possibly the giver of enemas — was called “nery phuyt,” which translates as the “shepherd of the anus,” according to an article published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery.
The ancient Egyptians had sophisticated methods of practicing medicine that combined the supernatural with the natural, such as herbal remedies and surgery.
Their written records have allowed their knowledge to pass down through the ages. While not always accurate, some of their theories and practices were not very different from those in use today.