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Modern medicine owes a lot to the Ancient Egyptians. In the beginning man could not explain all that happened around him so he attributed it to supernatural powers. He thought diseases were caused by evil spirits or were a punishment coming from a divinity. So physicians were simultaneously both priests and magicians.
These ideas were shared by all populations in ancient times. For example in ancient Egypt Isis was thought to be the healing god, in ancient Greece Asclepion, and for the Phoenicians it was Esmun.
Imhotep, the most famous physician in Egypt was an astronomer and an architect as well. Imhotep was worshipped as the god of Healing and medicine. His statue stands today in the Hall of Immortals at the International College of Surgeons in Chicago. Peseshet was the earliest female physician in the world, practicing during the 4th dynasty.
Most of what we nowadays know about Egyptian medicine comes from a variety of medical documents written by these physician-priests. These documents are based on prehistoric practices. The deciphering of these papyruses shows us that the Egyptians knew a lot about medicine. They inform us of treatments to diseases and how they performed surgical operations to remove cysts and cancer.
Many of the ancient procedures the Egyptians used are still in use today. For example: using pressure directly on the wound to stop the bleeding.
The oldest as yet discovered papyrus is the Kahun Gynaecology Papyrus, dated back to 1825 BC. It describes methods of diagnosing pregnancy, diagnosing sex of the fetus, toothache problems during pregnancy, gynaecological illnesses and the combination of drugs to cure them such as pastes and vaginal applications.
The most famous papyruses are the Edwin Smith Papyrus (1600 BC) and the Ebers Papyrus (3000 BC). The Edwin Smith Papyrus is 5 meters long. It describes 48 surgical cases of head, neck, shoulder, breast and chest wounds. It contains a vast experience in fractures that can only be acquired at a site where accidents are extremely common such as during the building of the pyramids.
The Ebers Papyrus is a huge roll, more than 20 meters long and 30 cm wide. It describes diseases of the eye, skin, extremities, gynaecology and some surgical diseases.
Anatomical and physiological terminology are also included. For the treatment of these diseases, 877 recipes and 400 drugs were described.
The ancient Egyptians had also studied the anatomy of the head and the brain.
The Ebers Papyrus precisely describes the position of the heart and illustrates some of its disorders such as dropped heart beats. They also knew that blood supply runs from the heart to all organs of the body. Due to the examination of the embalming bodies we can conclude that they also knew about tuberculosis, arteriosclerosis, measles, arthritis, epilepsy, tumors, headaches, stomach upsets, skin diseases, leprosy and pneumonia.
Drugs of different sources were used. Mineral, as zinc was used especially in eye and skin ointments. Animal products, as ox meat, liver as well as more than 160 plants (many still in use) were used in the form of pills, powders or suppositories.
Among the common plants used were sycamore, castor oil, acacia gum, mint, garlic and onion. Yeast was used for indigestion and externally for leg ulcers. The dosage was adjusted to the patients' age. They also used alternative medicine like physiotherapy, heliotherapy, hydrotherapy. In the Kalup Papyrus treatments with mud and clay are described.
The Egyptians knew the human anatomy and healing very well mostly due to the extensive mummification ceremonies. These involved removing most of the internal organs including the brain, lungs, pancreas, liver, spleen, heart and intestine.
The Mummification process was 70 days long. During this period the body was treated by priests and experts. The Mummification laboratory was called The house of energy. The definition of the word embalming means give back the full health. The last words of the ceremony go back to life, go back to life forever, to be young again forever.
Egyptian physicians based their treatments on examination, followed by diagnosis. Descriptions of the examination the most demanding part of a physician’s job, was lengthier both than the diagnosis and the recommended treatment.
Ancient Egyptian pharmacopoeia and many medical practices were ineffective, if not downright poisonous: e.g. excrement used in medicines would only in the rarest of cases prove to be wholesome, and if applied as wound dressing it may cause tetanus poisoning, yet dung continued to be used in Europe until the Middle Ages.
The reliance on magic and faith surely retarded the development of more rational views of the causes of diseases and their cures.
Egyptian theories and practices influenced the Greek, who passed on information to many of the physicians in the Roman Empire and through them Arab and European medical thinking for centuries to come.
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