The Doctors of Yesterday

In previous classes, we covered some information on the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations during ancient times. However, the topic of the history of medicine has not been thoroughly discussed in class yet. Therefore, in our blog post, we will be giving you information of the different medical practitioners during the early Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations.

Egyptian Medicine

As touched on in class, the Egyptian society was extremely well organized based on an economy of redistribution and allocation of tasks which enabled the establishment of the amazing pyramids and temples. Therefore, medicine naturally found its place in this organisation, as illness was part of the afflictions the pharaoh had to fight against. The medicine had been practiced in ancient Egypt since the earliest of days, around a thousand years before Christ, and was quite developed for its time. This is evident from skeletal findings, surgical instruments found in tombs, and wall paintings of some inscription of medicine.In ancient Egypt the role of a medical person was carried out by “sounou” whose literal translation means “the one of those who are unwell”. Through the process of mummification they gained information on the human body, this is due to the removal of body parts such as brain, lung, heart, etc. From this process they were able to study the body, and gain information to further medical practice.

In ancient Egypt, there was a physician by the name of Imhotep (No we are not talking about “The Mummy” homicidal priest). He was a high priest of Heliopolis, a chancellor to the Pharaoh, doctor, first in line after the King of Upper Egypt, administrator of the Great Palace and a hereditary nobleman. The Egyptian Imhotep who lived from 2667 - 2648 BCE, (his birth and death date differentiate between dates and sources, but it is mainly during the time of King Djoser) was the first physician in history known by name. Imhotep was given divine status after his death first as a demigod. He was considered the “inventor of healing” in Egypt, and was worshiped. After about 2000 years he was elevated from demigod to the position of god of medicine and healing. He had a cult that reached the height of success during the Greco-Roman times when he was actually identified with the Greek god of medicine Asclepius.

Imhotep

It was said that he was the author of a medical treatise: the Edwin Smith papyrus. The papyrus has a collection of 48 specimen clinical records with detailed accurate record of the type of injury as well as containing anatomical observations, ailments, and cures. It also differentiates the four main sources of disease, which were not mutually exclusive. Firstly, it could have been a divine source which sent illness as a punishment for the sin committed by the individual. Secondly, a demonic force could be torturing the individual. Thirdly, a spell or curse could have been placed by a practitioner of black magic. Lastly, a natural source which was discerned by experience could have been the cause. The types of treatment also differed between these illnesses as well. It included prayers and sacrifices, exorcism, magic spells or empirical applications of medicine and drugs.

Mesopotamian Medicine

Although the Mesopotamian civilization is as old as or even older than that of Egypt, the information we have about their medical practices is much less as the cuneiform source material is less well researched. The people of Mesopotamia had several concepts of diseases and death. Firstly, they believed that the spirits were to be blamed for diseases and each God or ghost was held responsible for one disease. These illnesses were seen to be bestowed upon humans either as a retribution for their sins or simply as malevolent visitations. One such figure was Lamashtu also known as “she who erases”. She was born to the supreme god Anu (who we gained some insight on, in class). Although it was not recorded in the medical texts, specific offerings were made to a particular God when it was considered to be a cause. Secondly, the Mesopotamian people recognized that various organs could malfunction, resulting in illnesses. They used remedies in the form of plants and herbs to cure these diseases.

In the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, there were two different types of medical practitioners. They were called the Asipus and the Asus. The former was considered to be an exorcist or a “witch doctor” and their main focus was to diagnose the illness or disease and to recognize which God or demon was responsible for it. They mainly used charms or spells in seeking a treatment for the patient. The latter on the other hand, was considered to be a physician who specialized in herbal remedies. In some cases, the asipu would refer certain cases to the asu, who dealt with “empirical applications of medication”. For example in case of external wounds, the asu would wash, disinfect and bandage it.

Many of the ancient plasters (a mixture of medicinal ingredients applied to a wound often be held on by a bandage) seem to have had some very helpful benefits. For example, they made plasters after heating plant resin or animal fat with alkali. When heated, this mixture gave rise to soap, which would have helped to ward off bacterial infections. The two practitioners worked together and at times could function in both capacities.

In essence, we can see that many medical practices of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations were intertwined in certain ways.  In both civilizations, the treatment of diseases were attributed to either divine or demonic forces and that health existed when life remained in harmony with the forces of nature, whereas illnesses reflected a dissonance between the individual and their environment.