chapter  2
Medicine in Ancient Egypt
Pages 4

The first documentation of scientific medical observations was produced about 3000 to 2300 BC (Old Kingdom) by an unknown author who some Egyptologists believe could have been the earliest known architect-physician, Imhotep. It came down to us in the shape of a 17th century BC copy of the original papyrus. The author of this treatise had already learned that in surgery and medicine a great body of observable phenomena confronted him. Systematic and scientific compilation and organization of observations in “cases” enabled this earliest documented natural scientist to base inductive conclusions upon bodies of observed fact. The heart as a central force of a system of distributing vessels and the importance of observing its action to determine a patient s condition were already part of his knowledge some 2300 years before the cardiac system was first mentioned in Greek medicine. He had commenced to count the pulse and was becoming acquainted with the muscu­ lar system. His observation that injury to the brain or spine especially affects the lower limbs and that a dislocation of the cervical vertebrae was accompanied by a seminal emission led him to recognize the brain and spine as the centers of nervous control-an observation that has been more fully developed by modern surgeons only within the present generation. Dissection was already practiced, and adhesive tape and surgical stitching are first mentioned in that period. Amazingly, as early as 5000 years ago, the ancient surgeon was able to pronounce a diagnosis, declaring that he (1) can treat and cure, (2) can treat and try a cure, or (3) cannot treat, the case being practically hopeless. He also had a host of medical prescriptions at his disposal for treatment. In tetanus following a serious skull injury, the treatise sug­ gests only hot applications to the constricted ligaments of the mandible. A decoc­ tion of willow, essentially salicin, was employed as a disinfectant; an ammoniacal application for allaying inflammation; and for astringent purposes, a solution con­ taining salts of copper and sodium. A great number of ointments were in use. It is interesting to note that several of the “household remedies” of the present day treat­ ing all kind of ailments seem to represent a virtually unbroken tradition since the days of the pharaohs.