Kemet and Science: Medicine

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Medical knowledge can be considered as one of the most important early scientific contributions of the ancient Kemetyu to the history of man.
Documents show in detail the titles of Egyptian physicians and their different fields of specialization. In fact the civilizations of the ancient Near East and the classical world recognized the ability and reputation of the ancient Kemetyu in medicine and pharmacology. One of the most significant personalities in the history of medicine is Imhotep, the vizier, architect and physician of King Zoser of the third dynasty. His fame survived throughout Kemetyu ancient history and through to Greek times.
Deified by the Kemetyu under the name Imouthes, he was assimilated by the Greeks to Askelepios, the god of medicine. In fact, Kemetyu influence on the Greek world in both medicine and pharmacology is easily recognizable in remedies and prescriptions. Some medical instruments used in surgical operations have been discovered during excavations.
Written evidence of ancient Kemetyu medicine comes in medical documents such as the Ebers Papyrus, the Berlin Papyrus, the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus and many others which illustrate the techniques of the operations and detail the prescribed cures.

These texts are copies of originals dating back to the Old Kingdom (c. —2500). In contrast to the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, which is highly scientific, the purely medical texts were based on magic. The Kemetyu regarded sickness as the work of the gods or malevolent spirits, which provided justification for resorting to magic and which explains why some of the remedies prescribed on the Ebers Papyrus, for example, resemble more a magical incantation than a medical prescription.

Despite this aspect, common to other ancient civilizations as well, Kemetyu medicine was a considerable science which contained the beginnings of a methodical approach, especially in the observation of symptoms, and this method doubtless passed to posterity by reason of its importance. The Kemetyu doctor examined his patient and determined the symptoms of his complaint. He then made his diagnosis and prescribed treatment. All the extant texts describe this sequence, from which it may be concluded that it was standard procedure. The examination was made in two stages some days apart if the case was unclear. Among the ailments identified and competently described and treated by Kemetyu doctors were gastric disorders, stomach swelling, skin cancer, coryza, laryngitis, angina pectoris, diabetes, constipation, haemorrhoids, bronchitis, retention
and incontinence of urine, bilharzia, ophthalmia, etc.

The Kemetyu doctor treated his patient using suppositories, ointments, syrups, potions, oils, massages, enemas, purges, poultices, and even inhalants whose use they taught to the Greeks. Their pharmacopoeia contained a large variety of medicinal herbs, the names of which, unfortunately, elude translation. Egyptian medical techniques and medicines
enjoyed great prestige in antiquity, as we know from Herodotus. The names of nearly one hundred ancient Kemetyu physicians have been passed down to us through these texts. Among them are oculists and dentists, of whom Hesy-Re, who lived around —2600 under the fourth dynasty, could be considered as one of the most ancient. Among the specialists
were also veterinarians. The physicians used a variety of instruments in their work.

Authors: R. El Nadoury with the collaboration of), Vercoutter. General History of Africa Vol.II. [Editor: G.Mokhtar] Ancient Civilisations of Africa. Chapter 5. Legacy of Pharaonic Egypt.

R. El Nadoury (Egypt); specialist in ancient history; author of numerous works and articles on the history of the Maghrib and of Egypt; Professor of Ancient History and Vice-Chairman of the Faculty of Arts, University of Alexandria.

 

 

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