Egyptian medicine: class notes

First doctors

First to use and record advanced medical practices

Decision of doctor went one of three ways: treat, struggle to treat, not treat.  3/49 were considered hopeless in Smith Papyrus.

Did not know of cellular biology, so did not know of antibiotics.

Women contributed to discovery and development of medicine.  Men wrote the ideas down.

Chimps self medicate (eat herbs for diseases, sickness)

Medicine, religion and magic were all used by the doctor.

Homer, circa 800 BCE (Odyssey) notes Es as being the best physicians in the world.

Es believed that the body was born healthy and got sick because of foreign agents.  Invisible agents were attributed to evil forces.

Medicines used:

  1. castor oil, with figs and dates – laxatives
  2. tannic acid – heal burns (from acacia nuts)
  3. coriander – cooling, stimulant, carminative (expels gas from stomach or bowel); tea for stomach illness.
  4. Alfalfa (Egyptian word meaning “father.”  It was the “father” of all restorative tonics; rich in vitamin A, D, E and K, and minerals).   Thought to have rid the body of inorganic mineral deposits.
  5. Chamomiles –  matricaria chamomilla has anti-bacterial effect.  (Inhibits staph, streptococcus, leptospira and trichomonas.  Leptospira (carried by rats) enters skin through skin abrasions while person works in contaminated water.  Also it acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.  It has sedative qualities if taken internally.
  6. Celery seed and stem: - anti-inflammatory, diuretic.
  7. Garlic – workers went on strike to get provisions, an important one was garlic.  Determine pregnancy.
  8. Juniper berries – stronger than some modern drugs as anti-inflammatory; alleviates headaches (reduces dilation)
  9. Rosemary – antioxidant (preservative); moderate effect against pathogenic fungi (fungus which makes one sick)
  10. Wormwood – vapor inhaled to prevent cough; reduces blood sugar, expels worms.
  11. Yeast – applied to ulcers (external and internal) and swellings.

Cure for Diarrhea:

1/8th cup figs and grapes, bread dough, pit corn, fresh Earth, onion, and elderberry.

Cure for Indigestion:

Crush a hog's tooth and put it inside of four sugar cakes. Eat for four days.

Cure for Burns:

Create a mixture of milk of a woman who has borne a male child, gum, and, ram's hair. While administering this mixture say: Thy son Horus is burnt in the desert. Is there any water there?  There is no water. I have water in my mouth and a Nile between my thighs. I have come to extinguish the fire.

Cure for Lesions of the Skin:

After the scab has fallen off put on it: Scribe's excrement. Mix in fresh milk and apply as a poultice.

Cure for Cataracts:

Mix brain-of-tortoise with honey. Place on the eye and say:

There is a shouting in the southern sky in darkness, There is an uproar in the northern sky, The Hall of Pillars falls into the waters. The crew of the sun god bent their oars so that the heads at his side fall into the water, Who leads hither what he finds? I lead forth what I find. I lead forth your heads. I lift up your necks. I fasten what has been cut from you in its place. I lead you forth to drive away the god of Fevers and all possible deadly arts.

Commonly used herbs included, senna, honey, thyme, juniper, frankincense, cumin, colocynth (all for digestion); pomegranate root, henbane (for worms) as well as flax, oakgall, pine-tar, manna, bayberry, ammi, alkanet, Acanthus, aloe, caraway, cedar, coriander, cyprus, elderberry, fennel, garlic, wild lettuce, nasturtium, onion, peppermint, papyrus, poppy-plant, saffron, sycamore, watermelon, wheat and zizyphus-lotus.

Surgical tools:

  1. knives
  2. drill
  3. saw
  4. forceps or pincers
  5. censer
  6. hooks
  7. bags tied with string
  8. beaked vessel
  9. vase with burning incense
  10. Horus eyes
  11. scales
  12. pot with flowers of Upper and Lower Egypt
  13. pot on pedestal
  14. graduated cubit or papyrus
  15. scroll without side knot (or a case holding reed scalpels)
  16. shears
  17. spoons

Edwin Smith Papyrus – 1700 BCE (infor evident in 2640 BCE).  5 meters long; 48 surgical cases (wounds to head, neck, shoulders, breast and chest)

Excerpt: "Take the water (humor) contained in pigs eyes, take true antimony, red lead, natural honey, of each 1 Ro (about 15 cc); pulverize it finely and combine it into one mass which should be injected into the ear of the patient and he will be cured immediately. Do and thou shalt see. Really excellent! Thou shalt recite as a spell: I have brought this which was applied to the seat of yonder and replaces the horrible suffering. Twice."  This cures Stupid Vision.

Ebers Papyrus (110 pages, 877 remedies); 10 meters long, 30 cm wide, internal medicine, plus diseases of the eye, skin, extremities, gynecology and some surgical diseases.

  1. Imhotep and Hesyre (time of Zoser) ca. 2725 BCE
  2. Temple schools (medical schools): interrogation (taking a history), inspection and palpation (feeling the affected or injured area)
  3. Studied brain, pulse related to heart.  The brain was the seat of the body.  The heart provided blood vessels that were hollow.  They could not distinguish between blood vessels, nerves, tendons and channels.
  4. medical history (questions to patient), examination and palpation and percussion.  (examined stool, urine, blood, sputum)
  5. knew about aneurysms
  6. knew about inguinal hernias. Cough! (heat application to reduce strangulated hernia)
  7. had prescriptions, performed surgery.
  8. Fertility was diagnosed by placing garlic in the vagina for one night. If the next day the woman can taste or smell it in her mouth, she is fertile. This is based upon the connection between the genital parts and interior of the body. Such connection would be lost in a case of obstructed Fallopian tubes.  To cause a woman to stop being pregnant, be it one, two or three years: part of acacia, colocynth, dates, finely ground in a hin [Hebrew measurment of liguid = circa 5 litres] of honey, fibers are moistened therewith, introduced into her vagina”.
  9. Pregnancy diagnosis: urine of pregnant woman: male child – urine germinates wheat, female- urine germinates barley.
  10. delivery- sit on two bricks, arms on knees.  Ease delivery with burning resin or massaging the abdomen by saffron powder and beer.
  11. Abortions – insert oil and fat.
  12. Contraception – insert crocodile oil, acacia gum or honey, and natron. (acacia gum dissolved produses lactic acid makes known -spermicidal).
  13.  Infants breast fed for three years.  If  not possible, cow’s milk.
  14. suture with needle and thread.  Raw meat (first day) prevents bleeding, then astringent (biting or caustic liquid, closes pores) herbs, butter, honey (hygroscopic= absorbs water) promotes white blood cell growth, and bread (moldy = penicillin).
  15. cancer existed in E times.
  16. pus was removed with a knife.
  17.  Piles and rectal prolapse were treated by medication, suppositories, laxatives and enema. For burns, a mixture of milk of a woman who has borne a male child, gum, and, ram’s hair was applied.
  18. Urethral strictures were dilated using reeds. This was the earliest non-surgical intervention ever applied in history. In modern medicine, the first intervention was reported in the AD 1880’s by catgut balloons.
  19. antiseptics – frankincense, date-wine, turpentine and acacia gum.
  20. cauterization – hot fire-drill.
  21. sedation – opiates.  Local anaesthesia – water mixed with vinaigre over Memphite stone.  This makes carbon dioxide, a known analgesic (relieves pain).
  22. broken bones were set.  Possibly knew of screwing bones together.
  23. reduce a dislocated joint. (Kocher’s technique today)
  24. knew of sciatic pain (down leg from back)
  25. knew of angina pectoris (heart attack)
  26. cough (asthma?)– inhale honey, cream, milk, carob, colocynth and date kernels.  Technique for inhalation: ….. You should then bring 7 stones and heat them on fire. Take one of them, place parts of these drugs over it, cover it with a new jar with a pierced bottom. Introduce a tube of reed through this hole and put your mouth on this tube so that you swallow its fumes. The same with every stone … “.
  27. joint pain (arthritis) – ointments containing fat, oil, bone marrow, gum, honey, flour, natron, onion, cumin, flax, frankincense or pine.  Today in E. flax seed (linseed) and sake or lizard fat is still used for this purpose.
  28. knew brain was responsible for paralysis.  Had 12 headache prescriptions.
  29. Migraines – fish (Siluris – electric catfish) in fat and oil.
  30. trepanning (drilling holes in head for relief of pressure)
  31. constipation – castor oil tree berries; chew and swallow with beer.  Leaves of castor oil plant 1/4, dates of male palm 5/6, Cyprus grass 1/16, stalk of Puppy plant 1/16, Coriander 1/16, cold beer 1/2, keep moist, strain, and take for four days”.
  32. diarrhea –green onion, gruel, oil, honey, wax, water, cook and take for 4 days.
  33. night blindness – liver of ox, roasted and crushed. (Vitamin A)
  34. cataracts – tortoise brain and honey.  First surgery Alexandria 31st Dynasty (Ptolomy)
  35. dental abscess – drill holes to drain.  Treated pyorrhea, loose teeth, caries.
  36. gold wire to secure a loose tooth.
  37. extractions and artificial teeth
  38. minerals used: sulfer, antimony and zinc, meats, 160 plants.
  39. dosage – adjusted to patient’s age.
  40. pyramid workers’ pay included : radish, garlic, onions.  These have antibiotic properties.
  41. enema = learned from Ibis bird.
  42. heart and mind were the same thing to an E.
  43. knew of depression and hysteria.
  44. alternatives: psychology, physiotherapy, heliotherapy,  hydrotherapy, mud and clay,
  45. Three types of doctors:   sunu = physician;          priest of Sekment         (lioness-goddess, punishes sins) sau = magic physician          
  46. specialists: eyes, teeth, mouth, stomach pains, uncertain diseases,  “Shepherd of the anus of the Pharaoh” (proctology)
  47. Peseshet = old female physician, i.e., first (4th Dynasty)
  48. peri-ankh = name of the medical schools: Abydos which Ramses IV visited frequently its library. At least four other houses of life were attached to temples at Bubastis, Edfu, Tel-el-Amarna and Kom-Ombo.
  49. doctors had a code of ethics and probably swore an oath.
  50. Cambyses, Persian king arrived in the 27th Dynasty (525 BCE).  Lost in Upper Egypt.  Returned during Festival of the Grains.  Rejoicing people he thought were making fun of him.  Destroyed schools and temples (peri-ankhs).  Successor, Darius, to win friendship, rebuilt them.
  51. all citizens got medical care (medicare)
  52. sick workers on the pyramids could claim pensions.
  53. sick leaves were allowed.
  54. sick people did not have to lift stones.
  55. no fixed retirement age.
  56. 4 hours work in morning, break for meal and nap, 4 hours work late afternoon.  Avoid mid-day sun.
  57. quarries and mines had doctors supplied.
  58. first country in history to practice hair trimming to avoid insect infestation.  Still practiced in modern armies.
  59. Kemet = Egypt in Egyptian.  Chemestry comes from it.

castor castor oil

castor oil


acacia tree



Smith papyrus

anubis.gif (8608 bytes)

Anubis: god of healers and embalmers

delivering a baby


medical instruments


fractured forearm with splint

Imhotep, god of healing

Hesyre, oldest known physician