Grains of truth and tarts' tattoos

Medicine in the Days of the Pharaohs

August 11, 2006

Egyptian medicine was famous in the days of Homer. As the Odyssey declares, the country was a land where "the grain-giving earth bears the greatest wealth of drugs, many which heal when mixed, but many that are baneful; every man there is a physician, wise above the human race". A few centuries later the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius the Great, with an entire empire at their disposal, recruited doctors from that same earth.

Even before Homer, the medical knowledge of the pharaohs was being sought by foreigners: one of the kings of Ugarit, on the Syrian coast, wrote to Akhenaten asking him for two Nubian pageboys and a physician (the order of priorities, however, may be significant). Ramesses II was asked by the king of the Hittites, his rival superpower, to send a doctor to treat the king's sister, who had difficulty in becoming pregnant.

The pharaoh wrote back, making up in honesty for what he lacked in gallantry: "As for my brother's sister, I know her well. Fifty, you say? Never: she's 60 if she's a day." Nevertheless, Ramesses went on to send his fellow king a magician, a physician and the usual medicine. Perhaps he was trying to protect his physician against a charge of malpractice when conception failed to occur.

According to Herodotus, some of Darius's Egyptian doctors were threatened with impalement when they failed to cure him, until a Greek colleague succeeded in getting them off. One of the reasons for this reputation was the huge range of medicines the Egyptian doctor could turn to. The several medical papyri that survive from Egypt, as well as the physical finds in several tombs, testify to this in profusion. The practice of mummification, which is attested early in the third millennium BC, gave the Egyptians knowledge of anatomy and physiology that their counterparts in other cultures largely lacked. But a third reason is perhaps the most significant: unlike most doctors in the ancient or early modern world they were encouraged to specialise. The Egyptians had ophthalmologists, laryngeal specialists and proctologists before the Greeks even had a word for them. There were also itinerant doctors who could go to patients rather than expect the patients to come to them. They were probably better at medicine than most doctors before the rise of Alexandria and possibly as good as most European physicians before the 17th century.

This is certainly to the good, because the evidence from mummies shows that there was a lot of disease around for doctors to treat. Their knowledge of the causes of disease and infections remained rudimentary, and could be completely wrong, but their detailed knowledge of practical remedies was often effective. Even old wives' tales can take on new lives in the light of modern knowledge. A papyrus in Berlin describes a method of determining the sex of an unborn child by the effect of the mother's urine on different types of cereals, an idea that seems completely fanciful. A recent experiment has shown that the results have a surprisingly good chance of being accurate.

The standard one-volume work on this field is John Nunn's Ancient Egyptian Medicine (1996). Nunn brought to the subject a knowledge of medicine that no Egyptologist could have done. Now this can be supplemented by the survey of Bruno Halioua and Bernard Ziskind, two French doctors who have made a lifelong study of their pharaonic predecessors and their achievements.

The book's range is impressive. Nothing is left to chance: there is the evidence of tomb painting, mummies, bones, medical literature on papyri and ostraca, residues of liquids found in jars, labels on jars, tattoos on prostitutes and inscriptions left in tombs of physicians and laymen.

There is even a chapter on the forensic possibilities for the Plagues of Egypt listed in Exodus, a theme the writers find irresistible, as will many readers. There is also a detailed bibliography of the subject.

The book makes little allowance for those with no technical knowledge, although those with medical training will probably recognise old friends.

We find ourselves staring at Landsteiner agglutinogens, tomodensitometric analysis, furuncular myiasis and much more. But we also sense that we are in the hands of experts who will not let their readers down. This, after all, is one of the attributes of a successful healer, and it is not a bad skill in writers too.

John Ray is professor of Egyptology, Cambridge University.

Medicine in the Days of the Pharaohs

Author - Bruno Halioua and Bernard Ziskind
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 6
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 0 674 01702 1

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