For its time, the study and practice of medicine in Ancient Egypt was revolutionary. Primitive by today’s standards, physicians in Egypt nonetheless showed great initiative and impressive knowledge of the human body and its inner workings, as well as the treatment of illness and disease.
The Egyptians were famously clean and fearful of illness and disease. Perhaps it is for this reason that medicine became such an important pursuit. They did what they could to prevent illness, by bathing and purifying their bodies habitually, shaving off their head and body hair (women included), and staying with a diet that excluded many “unclean” animals (including fish). However, disease still could not escape them, and the nature of the Egyptian civilization, one of learning and constant advancement, led them to study the human body and experiment with treatments and remedies.
The Egyptians held the belief that illness was often caused by an angry god or an evil spirit. For this reason, the Egyptian doctor was also part shaman, who performed rituals and recited prayers on the sick. But, the Egyptian physician was not limited to faith healing as part of his or her practice. Egyptian medicine became a far-reaching discipline, encompassing a great many fields. Doctors in Egypt, like today, were specialists in their particular fields. These fields included pharmacology, dentistry, gynecology, crude surgical procedures, general healing, autopsy, and embalming.
It is from the process of embalming, or mummification, that Ancient Egyptian physicians gained their greatest knowledge of the human anatomy. During the mummification process, which prepared the dead body for its journey into the afterlife, most of the organs were removed (brain, intestines, lungs, liver, etc.). This provided opportunities for examination and observation of many specimens through the years in the pursuit of medical knowledge. In fact, the Egyptians were so impressive in their knowledge of healing and anatomy that they impressed the Greeks, who were quite knowledgeable of the field in their own right.
As avid record-keepers, the Ancient Egyptians chronicled a great deal of their knowledge on papyrus scrolls. Some of these papyri still exist today, and we have been able to translate them somewhat accurately, and learn a great deal about the study and practice of medicine in Ancient Egypt. Some of the papyri are quite famous, including the Edwin Smith Papyrus, though of as one the principal record on Ancient Egyptian medicine. The Ebers Papyrus (dating back to approximately 3000 B.C.) is another papyrus containing a wealth of general information, including faith healing, information on skin diseases, stomach ailments, medicines, the head, dentistry, gynecology, and diseases of the extremities.
Another medical papyrus that proved very interesting was the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus (dating back to 1825 B.C.). This document provides information on the Egyptians' limited (and sometimes inaccurate) knowledge of the female reproductive system, pregnancy and childbirth, contraception, and treatments of illnesses during pregnancy.
It is clear that the Egyptians did not possess the range of knowledge about the health and disease that we have today. But their efforts in the field of medicine are very impressive (especially in the field of anatomy), and the documents left behind by them (as well as the Greeks) helped to advance the pursuit and study of the field throughout history.