Ancient Egyptian Medicine refers to the practices of healing common illnesses in Ancient Egypt from c. 33rd century BC until the Persian invasion of 525 BC. This medicine was highly advanced for the time, and included simple, non-invasive surgery, setting of bones and an extensive set of pharmacopoeia. While ancient Egyptian remedies are often characterized in modern culture by magical incantations and dubious ingredients, research in biomedical Egyptology shows they were often effective and sixty-seven percent of the known formulae complied with the 1973 British Pharmaceutical Codex. Medical texts specified specific steps of examination, diagnosis, prognosis and treatments that were often rational and appropriate.
Until the 19th century, the main sources of information about ancient Egyptian medicine were writings from later in antiquity. Homer c. 800 BC remarked in the Odyssey: “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind” and “the Egyptians were skilled in medicine more than any other art”. The Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt around 440 BC and wrote extensively of his observations of their medicinal practices. Pliny the Elder also wrote favorably of them in historical review. Hippocrates (the “father of medicine”), Herophilos, Erasistratus and later Galen studied at the temple of Amenhotep, and acknowledged the contribution of ancient Egyptian medicine to Greek medicine.
In 1822, the translation of the Rosetta stone finally allowed the translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions and papyri, including many related to medical matters. The resultant interest in Egyptology in the 19th century led to the discovery of several sets of extensive ancient medical documents, including the Ebers papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Hearst Papyrus and others dating back as far as 3000 BC. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a textbook on surgery and details anatomical observations and the “examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis” of numerous ailments. It was probably written around 1600 BC, but is regarded as a copy of several earlier texts. Medical information in it dates from as early as 3000 BC. Imhotep in the 3rd dynasty is credited as the original author of the papyrus text, and founder of ancient Egyptian medicine. The earliest known surgery was performed in Egypt around 2750 BC.
The Ebers papyrus c. 1550 BC is full of incantations and foul applications meant to turn away disease-causing demons, and also includes 877 prescriptions. It may also contain the earliest documented awareness of tumors, if the poorly understood ancient medical terminology has been correctly interpreted. Other information comes from the images that often adorn the walls of Egyptian tombs and the translation of the accompanying inscriptions. Advances in modern medical technology also contributed to the understanding of ancient Egyptian medicine. Paleopathologists were able to use X-Rays and later CAT Scans to view the bones and organs of mummies. Electron microscopes, mass spectrometry and various forensic techniques allowed scientists unique glimpses of the state of health in Egypt 4000 years ago.
Other documents as the Edwin Smith papyrus (1550 BC), Hearst papyrus (1450 BC), and Berlin papyrus (1200 BC) also provide valuable insight into ancient egyptian medicine. The Edwin Smith papyrus for example mentioned research methods, the making of a diagnosis of the patient, and the setting of a treatment. It is thus viewed as a learning manual. Treatments consisted of ailments made from ie animal, vegetable or fruit substances or minerals.