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Ancient Egyptian Medicine 3- Medical Discoveries


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The people of Ancient Egypt made several major medical discoveries and began treating diseases in a physical manner alongside older spiritual cures.

The Egyptians did not perform major surgery as conducted today they did make major developments in surgical knowledge and practice. Egyptian physicians are known to have performed some minor surgical operations however. The Papyrus Edwin Smith informs us of methods used to treat dislocated bones. 

Egyptians used antisceptic to aid the healing process, another major development in medical practice (they used Willow leaves and bark which are known to decrease the likelihood of infection). 

Egyptians had a reasonable understanding of the functions of major organs. They knew that vessels carried blood around the body.

Surgical practices were written down and taught to physicians.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus is 5 meters long, and is chiefly concerned with surgery. It described 48 surgical cases of wounds of the head, neck, shoulders, breast and chest. Unfortunately, the scribe who copied it did not proceed further from the thorax, and it ended abruptly in the middle of a sentence. The papyrus listed the manifestations, followed by prescriptions to every individual case. It included a vast experience in fractures that can only be acquired at a site where accidents were extremely numerous, as during the building of the pyramids.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus shows the suturing of non-infected wounds with a needle and thread. Raw meat was applied on the first day, subsequently replaced by dressing of astringent herbs, honey and butter or bread. Raw meat is known to be an efficient way to prevent bleeding. Honey is a potent hygroscopic material (absorbs water) and stimulates the secretion of white blood cells, the natural first body defense mechanism.

At least 39 mummies with cancer have been identified. Cancer of the uterus has been described in the Ebers papyrus

Breast cancer was also described, but was non-curable.


Ancient Egyptian Medica Instrument


Two sculptured slabs from the 1st dynasty (3150 – 2925 BC) dating to kings Aha and Djer (2nd and 3rd kings) show a seated person directing a pointed instrument to the throat of another who was kneeling. Some Egyptologists believe it was a tracheotomy (opening the airways to maintain breathing) procedure.

The surgical treatment of abscesses or cysts was described in the Ebers Papyrus.

Surgeons today are aware that complete excision of a swelling capsule is mandatory to avoid its recurrence.

Piles and rectal prolapse were treated by medication, suppositories, laxatives and enema. For burns, a mixture of milk of a woman who has borne a male child, gum, and, ram’s hair was applied. Urethral strictures were dilated using reeds. This was the earliest non-surgical intervention ever applied in history. In modern medicine, the first intervention was reported in the AD 1880’s by catgut balloons.

Mild antiseptics, as frankincense, date-wine, turpentine and acacia gum were used. Hot fire-drill was employed in cauterization.

Cairo museum has a collection of surgical instruments, including scalpels, scissors, copper needles, forceps, spoons, lancets, hooks, probes and pincers. A collection of 37 instruments is engraved on a wall in the temple of Kom-Ombo (2nd century BC), which was one of the houses of life.


The Edwin Smith Papyrus contains a list of instruments, including lint, swabs, bandage, adhesive plaster (x-formed), support, surgical stitches and cauterization

Pain alleviation to allow surgery was known to ancient Egyptian physicians. Patients were sedated by opiates. Local anesthesia was also known, where water was mixed with vinegar over Memphite stone, resulting in the formation of carbon dioxide with its known analgesic effect. This is not too far from modern cryo-analgesia.


In a recent excavation close to the pyramids, the city of the craftsmen and builders of the pyramids was discovered. The remnants of their skeletons show simple and multiple limb fractures, mostly at the ulna and radius (forearm bones), and of the fibula (leg). Most of those fractures show signs of complete healing with good realignment of the bone, indicating that they had been set correctly with a splint. Possibly, traction was applied in humerus fractures (arm bone). Two skeletons show amputations (a left leg and a right arm) with healed bone ends, suggesting a successful surgery. Recently, American researchers have described a 23 cm screw, tying the thigh and calf bones, fixed into a mummy dating back to the 6th century BC. It could not be confirmed whether it was placed surgically or during embalming.


Fracture forearm with splint, from a mummy of the 5th dynasty, showing signs of healing.


An inscription in the tomb of Ipujy, an architect of the 19th dynasty (1300 BC) shows the physician – or sunu – reducing a dislocated joint. The procedure is exactly similar to the modern “Kocher’s technique” orthopedics use today.

The diagnosis of sciatic pain was well described in the Edwin Smith Papyrus.



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