Practise of Medicine in Ancient Egypt
Doctors were highly respected in Ancient Egyptian society even though by modern standards their practice was a mixture of genuine science, quackery and magic-superstition hocus-pocus. Ancient Egyptian doctors had a high international reputation in their time and they were in great demand by kings and princes outside the boundaries of Egypt. A papyrus account dating back to the Rammesid period tells a story of the “Prince of Bakhten” (King of the Hittites) who sent a plea to His Majesty the King of Egypt on account of Bentrach, his daughter who was stricken with a malady that caused her limbs to twitch violently. The Pharaoh graciously sent a scribe of the “House of Life” to travel to Bakhten and attend to the Hittite King’s daughter.
Egyptian medicine was in the exclusive domain of the priests. The ancient doctors were mostly priests of the gods Serket, Neith and Ra-Atum. They cultivated herb gardens to provide medicament. There was a temple dedicated to the goddess Neith at Sais which had a medical school and a herbarium which produced diverse herbs and plant products like castor oil, mandragora, dill, cumin, hartshorn and coriander.
Medical papyri of ancient Egypt date back to the Old Kingdom. The ancient Egyptians revered tradition thus the older a medical papyrus or a method of treatment the greater was the authority ascribed to it.
How reliable was the service of Egyptian doctors?
We know that ancient Egyptian doctors were skilled bone setters(a practice still very highly developed among native doctors in many parts of Africa). Ancient Egyptian doctors had a good knowledge of antiseptic herbs and ointments which they used very effectively for treating wounds and cuts which they dressed with bandages and poultices.
Their greatest area of weakness was in internal medicine which, from all evidence, remained largely a mystery to them. Here they reverted to spells, magic formula and incantations. Most of the time the doctor’s service was more of threat to the patient’s life and health than his illness itself. The doctor’s dispensary included a bizarre collection of “pharmaceutical” products like lizard’s blood, excrement of toads and frogs, bats wings, snail viscera and slime scrapping, mother’s milk and virgin’s menstrual blood.
Such evil concoctions were usually taken with incantations and other outlandish magical manoeuvrings. It was, however, not all darkness for the ancient Egyptian doctors in the field of internal medicine. They were aware of the significance of heart function. Historians have often expressed surprise at the ancient Egyptian doctor’s ignorance of the abdominal organs like liver, kidneys and pancreas, given the development of the art and practice of embalming in ancient Egypt. It has, however, been pointed out that Egyptian embalmers were generally not doctors and doctors were generally not embalmers. The opportunity for cross-fertilization of ideas and knowledge between both professions was limited, for the professions generally jealously guarded their knowledge and skills from laymen.
Herodotus commented on the great concern of the ancient Egyptians for their health. “They take care of their health with emetics and purgative which they use three consecutive days every month and they believe that all ailments come from food ingested.”
In spite of their limited knowledge the ancient Egyptian doctors cared to specialize. According to Herodotus there were healers of eyes, belly and bones. There were specialist gynaecologists who dealt mostly with problems of infertility though the records of practice show that most of it was harmful and that the “gynaecologists” could be frankly considered menace to their patients’ health.
Ancient Egyptians were also interested in cosmetic medicine, as indicated by a papyrus styled: Book of Turning an Old man into a Youth of Twenty.