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History

Egyptian knowledge about the body and disease

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As the priests of ancient Egypt carried out their rituals of mummification, they learned a lot about the internal organs of the human body. They learned still more as they observed the natural world, and have left important writings that tell us some of what they knew.

Overview

Archaeologists have discovered papyri that show that the Egyptians had a good knowledge of bone structure, and had some understanding of breathing, the pulse, the brain and the liver.

Egyptian medical papyrus. First part of the Ebers Papyrus, written in Egypt in about 1570 BC.

Egyptian medical papyrus. First part of the Ebers Papyrus, written in Egypt in about 1570 BC.

The Egyptians developed a theory of physiology that saw the heart as the centre of a system of 46 tubes, or 'channels'. They failed, though, to realise that the different tubes (veins, intestines, lungs etc) had specific purposes. Their system is called the Channel Theory by historians.

The Egyptians believed that life was created and controlled by the gods. For example, they believed their god Thoth created human beings, and their god-demon Bes oversaw childbirth.

Having observed the damage done to farmers' fields when an irrigation channel became blocked, the Egyptians developed the idea that disease occurred when an evil spirit called the Wehedu blocked one of the body's 'channels'.

This was a crucial breakthrough in the history of medicine, because it led doctors to abandon purely spiritual cures for illness, and instead to try practical cures designed simply to unblock the channel.

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