Egyptian doctors were so far ahead of their times that would be practitioners from Greece, Syria and other nations studied their methods. In addition, emperors, kings and other notable citizens of Mediterranean countries imported Egyptian physicians to be their care takers.
While they identified the causes (scorpion bites were poisonous) and knew the treatment (berries of castor oil taken with beer for constipation) for many illnesses as well as recognizing that many ailments were transmitted from one person to another, the Egyptians knew nothing of the causes.
They had no knowledge of germs, viruses or bacteria. This ignorance actually helped to develop a holistic approach to medicine where not only science, but religion and magic were used to treat a patient. Aside for the potions and brews Egyptian doctors knew would improve a patient’s health, various prayers, incantations and spells were also recommended. Many doctors were first priests of any of the various gods of the times.
Some of the most common illnesses in the Egypt of antiquity were tuberculosis, viral and bacterial infections, bone deformities, the common cold and parasitic diseases.
The medical doctors of the Land of the Nile tended to specialize. General practitioners tended to serve the poor classes.
Mummification Lead to Medical Knowledge
Most of the Egyptian knowledge of human anatomy developed thanks to the practice of embalming the dead. Through careful observance of the interconnection of organs, the Egyptians were able to develop a good notion of their function. Notable mistakes on their assumptions were the roles of the brain and the heart, which they reversed. They also believed that in addition to blood, excrement, urine and semen flowed through the body.
Embalming or mummification developed into autopsies and surgery. It appears that as time went on, embalmers became curious about causes of death and began looking for it, giving birth to the autopsy.
Papyrus found in Egypt detail forty –eight cases of surgery: from brain operations -performed as early as 3,000 BC – to correction of spinal injuries. In addition, there is evidence of modern looking dental work.
Preventive Medicine Also Began in Egypt
Evidence from treatises of the times demonstrates that the Egyptians were also practitioners of preventive medicine. Regular, ritual bathing was a common practice as well as the shaving of the head and, to a lesser degree, the body. This was done to prevent lice. Some foods, like garlic, onions, mustard and honey, were consumed not only for their nutritve valued but because of their medicinal capabilities. Other foodstuff, like raw fish, was restricted for it was considered unclean.
Like in today’s Western societies, medical practitioners were in great esteem. Such was the prestige of the Egyptian doctors that one of the most famous, Imhotep (c2650 -2600 BC), was elevated to the rank of a god after his death, an honor usually reserved for Pharaoh.
A polymath, for he was also an engineer and architect, Imhotep is credited with the writing of the earliest medical treatise based purely on science.