By Carlos G. Musso, Nephrology Dept., Hospital Italiano de Buenos Aires, Argentina
Originally appeared in Humane Medicine Volume 5, Number 1, 2005
The very roots of Western medicine began in Ancient Egypt about 5000 years ago. Egyptian
All the information we have regarding Egyptian medicine comes from their medical instruments,
sources of information we have learned interesting things about their medicine. I have chosen the
following features with the intention of giving as clear an idea as possible of their medicine.
The Egyptian medical pathophysiology conceived of the human body as a system of ducts which
the Nile and its channels were vital for the Egyptian economy, some authors believe that the
Egyptians made a parallel between their sacred river and human physiology. From this
interpretation they explained disease as a consequence of an alteration in the vital body flow.
They believed that the obstruction of this flow was generated by evil gods, which led to the use
of spells and magic formulas crucial to attract good gods and their help.
Magic was so relevant that healing amulets played an important role in treatments, especially one
Seth and Horus because Seth had killed Horus’ father (Osiris). In this combat Seth had damaged
Horus’ eyes. But the wise god Toth healed Horus’ eyes and then he used one of the cured eyes to
revive Osiris. Since that time, the eye of Horus became a powerful healing amulet. So important
was its influence over the time that even today the symbol, which is at the beginning of our
medical prescriptions (Rp) (Figure 2), takes after the shape of the eye of Horus.
Egyptian doctors described what we currently know as “medical semiology,” since to them an
maneuvers such as inspection, palpation and auscultation in order to obtain information from the
patient’s body. Although they did not conceive our current concepts of disease, they used the
concept of syndromes, i.e. a group of signs and symptoms that delineate a recognizable pattern.
They also identified some signs as markers of severe physical compromise, such as trismus, neck
stiffness, weak pulse, etc.
They mastered human anatomy and they were very skilled applying bandages and using sutures.
Egyptians did mummification because they thought that after death the soul could return to life.
But in order to be able to revive, it had to recognize its body and occupy it. This belief made
mummification crucial in order to get the “life after life.” The word which they used to design
was that they thought that mummification was in fact a body treatment for “the other life.”
Since they had understood the central role of some organs such as the heart and the kidney, in the
incarnation. Because these organs were considered so vital, if they were damaged before
mummification or during this procedure they had to be replaced by a beetle-shaped amulet. Since
this object was supposed to replace magically the absent organ, we can consider this as the first
attempt “to replace a vital human organ by an artificial device.”
Regarding medical treatment they knew the properties of many plants for curative purposes.
“chem.” From this word later derived the terms chemistry and alchemy. The Egyptian physicians
were pioneers in describing tracheotomy to resolve high respiratory obstructions, cauterization to
avoid excessive bleeding while operating, and drainage to cure purulent collections.
But, perhaps the most important aspect of the ancient Egyptian medicine was the style of their
man since he was not only a great physician but also a poet, a priest, a judge, prime minister
(visir) of the Pharaoh Zoser and even the architect who drew the pyramid of Saqqara (Figure 4).
Many authors think that if the Alexandria Library had not been burnt down, Imhotep´s books
would have been preserved and he would have been considered, together with Hippocrates, one
of the fathers of modern medicine. He was so good that after his death people considered him a
healing god and his temples functioned as a sort of hospital.
Although Imhotep was surely an exceptional physician, he also represented the medical style of
common, but doctors did not stick to only one; they usually mastered more than one specialty
and they also learned other subjects. It is usually said that they could acquire all this knowledge
because medical knowledge was very limited in those times in comparison to the current one.
However, this is not entirely true because in those times, to be a good doctor implied to know
about astronomy, philosophy and all their gods and goddesses together with their specific rituals
and magic formulas.
This habit of being in touch with many disciplines was a great opportunity to get ideas or
diverse fields of knowledge is a very useful thing that can give us new concepts or ideas which
may lead us to solutions to yet unsolved matters in the medical field. A scientist mastering many
fields of knowledge can play an important role by blending everything he/she knows in order to
achieve a breakthrough concept, as Leonardo Da Vinci did enriching painting discipline by
applying concepts taken from non artistic fields such as geology, biology and engineering.
Ancient Egyptian medicine was taken by the Greeks who purified it from its magic concepts.
knowledge that from the Muslim Spain reached the rest of Europe. Europeans took this medical
treasure and turned it into our modern medicine. It was 7000 years after the Egyptian medical
Egyptian even when we are not fully aware of it. Maybe it is high time we emulate them and
enrich ourselves from other fields of knowledge, broadening our horizons in order to take
medicine beyond its present boundaries.
Figure 1: The Eye of Horus amulet
Figure 2: A modern medical prescription with the
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I would like to acknowledge Dr Megid El-Nahas and Dr Dimitrios G. Orepoulos for revising this