History

Egyptian civilisation

The Egyptian civilisation was the first of the world's great civilisations, and that society saw the beginnings of medical care as we know it today. The best way to think of Egyptian medicine is as being a practice based halfway between Stone Age superstition and Greek philosophy. Egyptians believed that 'spirits' caused illness, and some thought that they did so by affecting the way the body worked, by blocking channels in the body. As they explored ways of unblocking the channels, a role slowly emerged for professional doctors, who tried to make people better by using natural cures, reinforced by prayer.

Summary

Ornate gold coffinette

Gold coffinette found in tomb of Tutankhamun

Some knowledge of ancient Egyptian civilisation will help you to understand Egyptian medicine.

The Egyptian civilisation was the first of the great world civilisations, and the stability of this society led to important spin-offs into medicine.

Egyptians created a settled farming economy, with an organised government, laws and social conventions. This was a society in which people were wealthy enough to pay to take care of their health.

They also developed a formal religion, which required temples, priests and rituals that included mummification. Their experience of mummification taught the priests about the workings of the human body, and some members of the priesthood evolved into professional doctors.

Further still, the Egyptians invented the skills of writing and calculation, which Egyptian doctors were able to use to develop their ideas and record their cures.

The ancient Egyptians travelled and traded all over the known world, and brought back all kinds of herbs and spices, which their doctors then used to heal certain diseases. Most of all, they developed a wealthy way of life, which left them time for observation and reflection.

From their observations of the irrigation channels used by farmers to water their crops came an important medical development - the invention of the Channel Theory.

More detail

1. Government

King-priests called pharaohs ruled Egypt.

  • They employed palace physicians (experts such as Imhotep and Irj).

2. Society

Farming.

The first towns, laws and social conventions.

Specialisation of roles (eg carpenters, scribes).

  • Observation of irrigation channels by farmers led eventually to the Channel Theory.
  • Basic hygiene habits, such as use of latrines and baths, developed.
  • A role for doctors emerged.

3. Religion

This dominated people's thinking, and required temples, priests, and rituals such as mummification.

  • Mummification advanced priests' knowledge of internal organs (and improved bandaging).
  • Professional doctors developed from the priesthood.
  • The idea of cleanliness was a religious, not a medical, concept in Egyptian society.

4. Writing and calculation

So that it could send its orders all over the country, the Egyptian government developed a form of writing, called hieroglyphs, on papyrus.

The government collected taxes, organised land-ownership, measured the flooding of the Nile, and built pyramids, so the Egyptians learned to count.

  • There were teaching books for doctors and 'look-up' books of remedies.
  • They carefully measured out their medicines, and developed courses of treatment over time.

5. Trade and travel

The Egyptians traded all over the known world.

  • Traders brought back healing herbs and spices from everywhere they went to.
  • Egyptian medical knowledge spread all over the known world, and Egyptian doctors became famous.

6. Observation

Egyptians observed the stars, the seasons and the behaviour of the Nile.

Most of all, they carefully observed the state of the irrigation channels that watered their crops.

  • Priests/doctors observed the internal organs of the body during mummification.
  • They observed patients carefully as part of their diagnosis.
  • They observed and recorded whether their cures worked or not.
  • Most importantly, the example of irrigation channels led them to develop the Channel Theory of illness.

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