History

Egyptian doctors

Egyptian society was a rich one, leaving room for an educated class to emerge. Out of this class came both priests and doctors, who developed the practice of medicine in their society with impressive results.

Summary

Egyptian doctors believed that the gods caused disease, but that they did so by disturbing the normal workings of the body. So, alongside their prayers and spiritual remedies, the doctors developed practical cures to put the body right.

They were the first people to develop empirical (based on facts and observation) methods to cure disease, rather than simply seeking spiritual explanations for it.

Egyptian 19th-Dynasty painting of the god Anubis bandaging Sennedjem during mummification

Egyptian 19th-Dynasty painting of the god Anubis bandaging Sennedjem during mummification

The image above is of the god Anubis bandaging Sennedjem during mummification.

This put the ideas of Egyptian doctors halfway between those of the witch-doctors of the Stone Age and those of the Greek philosophers. They made the break from superstition, and began the march towards modern medical care. The Egyptian god of healing, Imhotep, had been, in fact, a doctor.

The Egyptians were the first people to develop the profession of medicine.

Doctors and progress in Egyptian medicine

Progressive and regressive factors

ProgressiveRegressive
Mummification led to advances in knowledge of anatomy, and led to good bandaging skills.Religion channelled money and thought away from practical medicine.
Healer-priests gradually evolved into professional doctors.Much medicine was nevertheless still done by magicians and priests.
Cleanliness was important to Egyptians for religious reasons.Egyptians did not understand the medical significance of cleanliness.
Egyptians thought spells and remedies would give additional 'power' to their practical medical cures. Some charms were downright unhealthy.

Revision tip

"Egyptian doctors made the break from superstition and began the march towards modern medical care."

Explain the sentence above by looking back over the facts and ideas you have studied in this unit of the Egyptian section, and make a list of the advances made by Egyptian doctors.

As you read, note down when you can confirm one of the following possible comments about Egyptian doctors:

  • they knew about the workings of the body
  • they were skilled at observation and diagnosis
  • they recorded their methods and used books of instructions
  • they were separate from the priesthood
  • they were skilled at bandaging and external surgery
  • they knew hundreds of herbal remedies
  • they had a reassuring 'bedside manner'
  • they specialised in particular illnesses

Answer preparation

As part of your revision, think about the arguments and facts you would use to explain:

  1. How Egyptian medicine reflected the ideas and practices of Egyptian civilisation.
  2. What caused people to be healthy or unhealthy in Egyptian times.
  3. What ideas the Egyptians had about the causes and treatment of illness and injuries.
  4. Who provided medical care in Egyptian times.
  5. How much (or whether) medicine changed in Egyptian times, and what the main turning points were.
  6. Why some diagnoses and treatments changed, while others remained the same.
  7. How (or whether) the process of change was influenced by:
    • individuals
    • the government
    • science and technology
    • war
    • attitudes and beliefs in society
    • trade
  8. To what extent developments in medical understanding and practice in Egyptian times affected people's lives.

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