Ancient Egyptian Medicine

The medical knowledge

A few papyri have survived, from which we can learn about Egyptian medicine

  • The Edwin Smith Papyrus describing surgical diagnosis and treatments,
  • the Ebers Papyrus on ophthalmology, diseases of the digestive system, the head, the skin and specific maladies like aAa, which some think may have been a precursor of aids and others, perhaps more reasonably, consider to have been a disease of the urinary tract, a compilation of earlier works that contains a large number of prescriptions and recipes,
  • the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus,
  • the Berlin Medical Papyrus,
  • the London Medical Papyrus.
  • the Hearst medical papyrus repeats many of the recipes found in the Ebers papyrus.
  • the Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden contains a number of spells for treating physical ailments.

The treatments in these texts are often organized into groups. The Edwin Smith Papyrus for instance opens with eight texts concerning head wounds, followed by nineteen treatments of wounds to the face (forehead, eyebrows, nose, cheeks, temples, mouth, chin), six descriptions of how to deal with injuries to throat and neck, five dealing with collar-bones and arms, and seven with chest complaints. It appears that all this knowledge dates to the third millennium BCE, even though the papyrus itself is of a much later date. Some important notions concerning the nervous system originated with the Egyptians, a word for brain is used here for the first time in any written language:

… the membrane enveloping his brain, so that it breaks open his fluid in the interior of his head.

The Edwin Smith papyrus, case 6

Acting conservatively, they knew how to treat injuries to the brain without killing the patient, but on the whole their understanding of the brain and its functions was superficial: they considered thinking to be a function of the heart.

Their dissection of bodies during mummification seems not to have added greatly to their knowledge of the inner workings of the human body, possibly because mummifiers and physicians did not move in the same circles, but also because of the way the organs were removed: ripped out through a small incision in the corpse’s flank or, in the case of the brain, scooped out in small portions through a nostril. They had some anatomical knowledge though, had made the connection between pulse and heart, but did not have any understanding of the circulation of the blood

The Edwin Smith papyrus, case 1

This knowledge reached Greece through the doctors of Alexandria. The anatomical properties they were best aware of where superficial, pertaining to accessible body parts such as bones of limbs or the infants’ fontanel’s

Fluttering under the fingers like the weak place of an infant’s crown before it becomes whole

The Edwin Smith papyrus, case 6

Often we cannot translate the specialist expressions used in the medical texts, both of the affected body parts such as the mt.w, generally translated as “vessels” or the like and apparently comprising blood vessels, sinews and nerves, and the ingredients of their medicines. Sometimes their knowledge was either not very exact or unfortunately expressed. One will wonder for a few moments underneath what the bronchi were to be found:

“A dislocation in his two collar-bones” means a displacement of the heads of his sickle-bone(s). Their heads are attached to the upper bone of his breast to his throat, over which is the flesh of his gorge, that is the flesh that is over his bosom. Two ducts (i.e. the bronchi) are under it: one on the right and (one) on the left of his throat (and) of his bosom; they lead to his lungs.

The Edwin Smith papyrus,

That this theoretical knowledge was often successfully applied is proven by archaeological finds in the workers’ tombs at Gizeh for instance. Skeletons with broken arms that had been set, a man who had survived the amputation of a leg by fourteen years and another brain surgery by two years.