World’s first sophisticated medical practice
Sometime before 2000 BCE, Egyptian priests began to develop the world’s first sophisticated medical practice. Although it is believed that all early cultures learned some forms of herbal cures and methods of surgery, the Egyptian priests were the first to codify their knowledge in a way that
scholars can interpret today. The fame of the Egyptian healers was so great that the rich and noble from all around the Middle East and, later, the whole Mediterranean basin traveled to Egypt
to be treated.
One semilegendary figure, Imhotep, who flourished sometime around 2600 BCE, is often considered to be the first scientist known by name, although he was not a scientist in the modern sense of the word. Famous as a physician, he is also credited with being the architect of the step pyramid for the pharaoh Djoser. After his death, Imhotep was assigned a godly ancestry and magical powers. Imhotep has been called the only scientist ever to have become a god.
The Egyptians understanding of the human body
It is widely assumed that Egyptian priests gained their understanding of the human body by preparing mummies. Priests removed for special treatment the internal organs of a cadaver being mummified. Although dissection presumably was the basis of their knowledge, the evidence is that most treatments for disease were based on trial-and-error experimentation. Moldy bread was put on wounds, an application of the mold that produces penicillin. Castor oil as a purgative and poppy juices to relieve pain were also commonly used. Radishes, garlic, and onions were eaten by the thousands who built the pyramids and temples, for the Egyptian priests believed like modern herbalists that these vegetables prevent epidemic disease, a view partially confirmed by modern scientists. At the least, these vegetables contain ingredients that have antibiotic properties. Other ingredients were less likely to be efficacious, such as Nile mud, dung, and urine. There was also a tendency to mix medicines into wine or beer; this contributed to a feeling of well-being in the patient.
Treatment of diseases with unknown causes
Treatment of diseases with unknown causes was done strictly in a religious context. Egyptians believed that gods watch over each body part and priests devoted to a particular god were also
specialists in treating that body part. Surgery for wounds and broken bones was quite different. The priests knew that the cause of these injuries was not the gods. A papyrus known as the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (because it was purchased by American Egyptologist Edwin Smith) does not mention the gods, even though it dates from about 1550 BCE and is probably a copy of an earlier manuscript that may be as much as a thousand years older. The papyrus tells how to set bones, about the pumping function of the heart, and that the pulse can be used to determine how the heart is functioning. Another medical papyrus from about this time, the Papyrus Ebers, gives other medical practices, such as prescribing medications and diets.
Decline of Egyptian medicine
Although Egyptian medicine went into decline about 1200 BCE, its reputation as the best in the ancient world continued until well after Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BCE.