Imhotep: The Dean among the Ancient Egyptian Physicians An example of a complete physician

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Imhotep: The Dean among the Ancient Egyptian Physicians - An example of a complete 



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 

medicine was a mixture of magic explanations, acute observation and great empirical knowledge.  


All the information we have regarding Egyptian medicine comes from their medical instruments, 

art pieces and at least seven medical papyruses that have been discovered. Thanks to all these 

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 

drove the air and biological fluids from the lungs and the digestive tract to the whole body. Since 

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 

called the Eye of Horus (Figure1). An Egyptian legend said that there had been a fight between 

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 

organized physical examination was central for medical work. They used as we do medical 

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. 

It is supposed that they had obtained all this knowledge through the practice of mummification. 

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 

mummification was “srh,” the same term that they used to name a treatment. The reason for that 

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 

mummification process they did not remove these organs which they considered vital for re-

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. 

Even more, they developed a discipline related to the management of these substances called 

“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 

physicians of whom Imhotep was the greatest example (Figure 3). Imhotep was an outstanding- 

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 

those times. Egyptian doctors did not limit their knowledge to medicine. Specialization was 

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 

concepts outside the medical field, which could enrich it. The blend of information coming from 

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. 

After that it was spread by the Helenism. The Arabs inherited and enriched this medical 

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 

knowledge reached us, and when we read about it we realize that our medical practice is a bit 

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 

symbol (Rp) 


Figure 3: The Egyptian physician Imhotep



Figure 4: Pyramid of Saqqara


1) Lambert T. “Dictionary of Gods and Myths from the Ancient Egypt.” Barcelona. Editorial 

Oceano. 2004: 6-261. 


2) Elorza J, Jauregui J. “The Ancient Egypt.” In Elorza J, Jauregui J (Eds). The Creator Man›. 

Bilbao. Editorial Fher. 1974: 27-40. 


3) Bender GA. “Medicine in the Ancient Egypt.” In Bender (Ed). Great Moments of the 

Medicine›. Detroit.1961: 3-9. 


4) Williams AR.. “The treasures of Egypt.” In Albores L (Ed). National Geographic -en español-

Méjico.2004: 87-103. 


5) Lluís A. “Life in the Ancient Egypt.” In Moreno JC (Ed). Arqueo. Barcelona. RBA Revistas 

S.A.2003: 76-89. 


6) Quoniam P. “The Louvre.” In Edition des la Reunion des Musée Nationaux. Paris. 1983: 15-



7) Lise G. “How to recognize the Egyptian Art.” Barcelona. Editorial Médica y Técnica S.A. 

1978: 3-54. 


8) Bladé R, Freyre V. “Egypt.” In Margarit I (Ed).Life and History›. Barcelona. Mundo Revistas 

SA. 2003: 31-61. 


9) Vivó J. “Tutankhamon” In González L (Ed). Barcelona. National Geographic-en español-

2004: 39-51. 


10) Tovar A. “Egypt.” In Tovar A (Ed). History of the Ancient East›. Barcelona. Montaner y 

Simon SA. 1978: 44-84. 


11) Bladé R, Covadonga S. “Ramses II.” In Margarit I (Ed).Life and History›. Barcelona. Mundo 

Revistas SA. 2003: 33-59. 


12) Müller IW, Roelcke V, Wolf-Braun B, Shadewaldt H. “Chronic of Medicine.” Barcelona. 



13) Ghalioungui P. “The Medicine in the Pharaonic Egypt.” In Lain Entralgo P (Ed).Universal 

History of Medicine›. Barcelona. Salvat. 1972: 95-124. 


14) Lyons, Petrucelli. “Ancient Egypt.” In History of medicine. Barcelona. Argus:77-94. 



I would like to acknowledge Dr Megid El-Nahas and Dr Dimitrios G. Orepoulos for revising this 



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