History

Egyptian methods of diagnosis and treatment

Some Egyptian methods of diagnosis would not be out of place in a modern doctor's surgery, despite the great differences in our understanding of the causes and nature of disease. The treatments are perhaps another matter.

Overview

The Egyptians examined their patients, and made their diagnosis, with reference to medical textbooks. These advised the doctors how to do the examination, and what a patient's disease might be. The doctors asked questions, took the patient's pulse, and touched the affected part.

Egyptian priest mixing medicine, using natural substances

Egyptian priest mixing medicine, using natural substances

For many ailments they had practical treatments using natural substances such as ochre and frankincense from Africa, or cinnamon and pepper from India. They could also include locally found ingredients such as mud, yeast and dung.

The doctors made their medicines carefully, using a unit of measurement called a ro. Some of the recipes include a recommendation, such as: 'A really excellent remedy'.

Many of their cures were based on what historians call the 'Channel Theory'. They thought that they could unblock the 'channels' of the body by making people vomit, or bleed, or empty their bowels, and that this would cure sickness.

Some of their cures used what we call today sympathetic magic. For instance they used a pig's eye to try to cure blindness - they believed that the power of sight in the pig's eye would transfer to the patient's eye.

All the time, however, the Egyptians believed that the gods ultimately controlled their lives. Many cures included a spell to give power to the remedy.

Source analysis and question

Remedies in the 'Papyrus Ebers'

'A remedy to empty the belly and make all evil that is in the body of a man come out'

Colocynth [Colocynth: A laxative used by doctors in ancient Egypt. ] 4 ro, honey 4 ro, dates 5 ro, manna [Manna: A sugary gum found on certain trees, used as a remedy by doctors in ancient Egypt. ] 5 ro, are mixed together and taken in one day.

 

'For a diseased eye'

To clear up the pus: honey, balm from Mecca and gum ammoniac. To treat its discharge: frankincense, myrrh, yellow ochre.

 

'To kill roundworm'

Root of pomegranate 5 ro, water 10 ro, remains during the night in the dew, is strained and taken in 1 day. Then say this incantation: "The burdens are loosened, and the faintness departs which the worm has put into this my belly. The one whom the god has created, against him the enemy has made an attack; but the god cures that which he has done in this my belly."

 

'Remedy for blindness'

A pig's eye, antimony [Antimony: A metal that causes vomiting, sweating, and purging of the bowels ], red ochre and a little honey are finely ground and mixed together and poured into the ear of the man so that he may be cured at once. Then recite this spell twice: "I have brought this ointment and applied it to the trouble spot and it will remove the horrible suffering." ... A really excellent remedy.

 

'For a swelling on the neck'

If you examine a swelling on his neck, and you find it is soft to feel with a white secretion, then you shall say concerning it: "You are suffering from an enlarged gland on the neck; it is a disease which I will treat by an operation to guard the channels." You shall prepare remedies to treat it with a dressing that breaks the surface: acacia fruit, blood of the hwr-bird, fly's blood, honey, northern salt, are ground, mixed together and the gland is bandaged therewith.

 

'Against rheumatic pain'

There are 2 vessels in him to his arm; if he is ill in his shoulder or his fingers ache, then you shall say concerning it: "It is a rheumatic pain." What is done against it: let him vomit by means of fish with beer or meat, and his fingers are bandaged with water-melon, until he is healed.

'Papyrus Ebers' (remedies), c.1500BC

Question

Once you have read the remedies in the 'Papyrus Ebers' - a famous source in Egyptian anatomy and physiology - look for evidence that the Egyptians:

  1. examined their patients and made a diagnosis based on observation
  2. had practical treatments using natural substances
  3. brought healing substances from all over the world
  4. used locally found substances in their remedies
  5. measured their medicines using a unit of measurement called a 'ro'
  6. sometimes included a recommendation
  7. used vomiting, bleeding and purging to 'unblock the channels'
  8. used what we call today 'sympathetic magic'
  9. believed that the gods controlled their lives
  10. included a spell to give power to their remedy
  11. wrote down what they knew so that knowledge could be passed on

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Answer

Evidence in the 'Papyrus Ebers' that shows Egyptians:

  1. examined their patients and made a diagnosis based on observation
    • 'If you examine a swelling on his neck ... then you shall say concerning it'
  2. had practical treatments using natural substances
    • '...dates, manna [Manna: A sugary gum found on certain trees, used as a remedy by doctors in ancient Egypt. ], gum ammoniac, water, antimony [Antimony: A metal that causes vomiting, sweating, and purging of the bowels ]'
  3. brought healing substances from all over the world
    • 'balm from Mecca, frankincense, myrrh, ochre' [from Africa], 'colocynth [Colocynth: A laxative used by doctors in ancient Egypt. ] and root of pomegranate' [from India]
  4. used locally found substances in their remedies
    • 'blood of the hwr-bird, fly's blood, honey, northern salt, dew, fish with beer or meat, water melon'
  5. measured their medicines using a unit of measurement called a 'ro'
    • 'Colocynth 4 ro, honey 4 ro, dates 5 ro, manna 5 ro, are mixed together'
  6. sometimes included a recommendation
    • 'A really excellent remedy'
  7. used vomiting, bleeding and purging to 'unblock the channels'
    • [for rheumatism] '...let him vomit by means of fish with beer or meat'.
  8. used what we call today 'sympathetic magic'
    • [for blindness] 'A pig's eye, antimony, red ochre ...'
  9. believed that the gods controlled their lives
    • '...say this incantation: " The one whom the god has created, against him the enemy has made an attack; but the god cures that which he has done in this my belly".'
  10. included a spell to give power to their remedy
    • '...say this incantation: "The burdens are loosened...".'
  11. wrote down what they knew so that knowledge could be passed on
    • 'Papyrus Ebers'

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