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Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Medicine and Healing Practices in Ancient Egypt | Liverpool University Press Blog

Heritage and Landscape, History

Medicine and Healing Practices in Ancient Egypt

Medicine and Healing Practices in Ancient Egypt is an innovative, 'people-focused' study which approaches ancient Egyptian practices from the perspective of the healthcare professionals and their patients. It describes perceptions of illness and disability; the training, roles and interaction of healthcare providers; the healing methods experienced by various social groups; and ancient Egypt's legacy to modern 'Western' medicine. In this blog post, authors Rosalie David and Roger Forshaw introduce their new book, touching on a range of ancient Egyptian medical practices and discussing the similarities to twenty-first century standards.

The ancient Egyptian civilisation lasted for over five thousand years and provided the inspiration and basis for some of the developments we enjoy today. Their medicine and healing systems were advanced for their time and were well respected by other early civilisations. For example, we know that Egypt exchanged ideas and practices with the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.

Similar to other ancient societies, the Egyptians interpreted the experienced world according to patterns of knowledge rather different from those of the modern Western world. Supernatural powers were regarded as major controlling influences in daily life. These not only included phenomena such as changing weather patterns and the annual flooding of the river Nile, but also the causation of disease. They believed that Illness could be instigated by a variety of agents such as malevolent spirits or powers which included not only the Gods, but also living and dead persons as well as animals. However, in the case of a traumatic injury such as a wound or bite, they recognised that the agent was the actual perpetrator of the injury.

The healing practices that were employed involved a combination of magical incantations, performative rituals, and the use of a wide range of medicaments. They did not recognise a distinction between empirical-rational therapy and the use of incantations. In ancient Egypt empirical knowledge and magical actions were equally valid parts of the complex cultural system, and the healer seems unlikely to have actively distinguished between them when treating a sick member of the community.

The Egyptian healing procedures continue to fascinate us today. Our book, Medicine and Healing Practices in Ancient Egypt, now looks at the subject in a fresh way: instead of focusing predominantly on the types of disease present in ancient Egypt, our account is more people-focused, considering the roles of healers and patients and their professional interaction with each other.  

Surgical treatments, although limited in scope, are particularly interesting, and researchers have questioned whether surgery was a separate branch of general medicine and if any type of operative treatment was practised. While there is considerable evidence for the management of injuries and trauma there is less support for surgical procedures relating to conditions which did not result from trauma.

Relief depicting possible surgical instruments at the Graeco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo.
Public Domain via Wikipedia (Photographer: Ad Meskens).

However, the extant ancient Egyptian medical texts do provide some  information on surgical procedures. These manuscripts, known as the medical papyri, of which there are about fourteen in number, supply details on disease, diagnosis, and remedies for ailments which include herbal mixtures, surgery and magical incantations. Within the texts there is reference to minor surgical procedures such as incisions to drain or excise swellings. One example in the Ebers Papyrus describes a swelling of the blood vessels which is rounded and solid on palpitation. The treatment recommended is cauterisation followed by the 'knife treatment'. This suggests that the ancient Egyptians realised that cauterisation would reduce excessive bleeding before commencing surgery, and perhaps suggests the diagnosis of a haemangioma in this case.

An essential part of any wound management is a surgical dressing, and bandages and wound coverings composed of linen were frequently recommended in the medical papyri, being used to apply medicaments as well as to bind wounds. Lint made from linen or vegetable fibres was used to absorb secretions, and linen strips were impregnated with gum resin to approximate the sides of a wound, much as 'Steri-Strips' do today.

A group of three bone spatulas from the Iseum Savaria in Hungary dated to the Roman Period and which were
probably used to mix compounds, perhaps for medical purposes. Courtesy of Savaria Museum – Iseum Savariense.

There is palaeopathological evidence of amputations, and the ancient Egyptians understood the principles involved in diagnosing and managing bone fractures. They would 'reduce' the fracture and then immobilise the bones by the use of splints.

The Ebers papyrus includes a section describing medicinal preparations for the treatment of burns, some with recognisable beneficial properties including honey which would reduce swelling and exert an anti-bacterial effect. The use of copper flakes and malachite which would also have a bactericidal effect were other compounds recommended. However, for certain other suggested ingredients, including plant and herbal products, no health benefit has yet been demonstrated.

Although ancient Egyptian medicine may appear somewhat unsophisticated, judged by twenty-first century standards, the medical papyri and the Edwin Smith Papyrus, in particular, do demonstrate that evidence-based medicine was practised some four millennia ago. Some type and level of medical care and treatment appears to have been available to everyone, regardless of wealth or status. Specific guidelines defined and protected the relationship between healthcare providers and their patients, and there was an enlightened attitude towards deformity and disabling physical and mental health issues. Healers provided some level of treatment for all their patients, regardless of the severity of their condition; even for the terminally ill, appropriate palliative care was offered. It is perhaps this centrality and importance of the patient's role that should be regarded as the Egyptians' most significant and enduring legacy to the modern world.  

Find out more about Rosalie David and Roger Forshaw's new book Medicine and Healing Practices in Ancient Egypt on our website.

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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