Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities

© 1999 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 1999 Ancient Egyptian Medicine

The civilization of ancient Egypt dates from around 3000 BC. As in Mesopotamia, ancient Egyptian medicine was religious-empirical. An examination of the preserved bodies of members of the Royal family has provided much information on the diseases of ancient Egypt, including congenital deformities such as clubfoot, dental caries, gallstones, bladder and kidney stones, rheumatoidarthritis, mastoiditis, numerous eye diseases, and bone fractures, some of which show treatment by quite sophisticated splinting. Other evidence suggests that the average ancient Egyptian was extremely diseased. For example, a weaver who died in the 11th century BC, aged 14-18 years, evidently suffered from schistosomiasis, tapeworm likely associated with malnutrition, anthracosis of the lungs presumably due to environmental pollution from cooking and heating, pulmonary silicosis, and possibly malaria and fleas.

The Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BC), deriving from Thebes, is the principal medical document and may be the oldest surviving medical book. Over 20 meters long, it deals with scores of diseases and proposes remedies involving spells and incantations, but also includes many rational treatments. The Ebers Papyrus covers 15 diseases of the abdomen, 29 of the eyes, and 18 of the skin, and, perhaps unsurprisingly to the modern consumer, lists no fewer than 21 cough treatments. About 700 drugs and 800 formulations are mentioned, mainly involving herbs but also including mineral and animal remedies. For example, to cure night blindness the patient should eat fried ox liver -- possibly a tried-and-tested procedure, since liver is rich in Vitamin A,749 lack of which causes the illness. Eye disorders were also common, for example:

"To drive away inflammation of the eyes, grind the stems of the juniper of Byblos, steep them in water, apply to the eyes of the sick person and he will be quickly cured. To cure granulations of the eye, prepare a remedy of cyllyrium, verdigris, onions, blue vitriol, powdered wood, and mix and apply to the eyes."

For stomach ailments, a decoction of cumin, goose-fat and milk was recommended, but other remedies sound more exotic, including a drink prepared from black ass testicles. A mixture of vulva and penis extracts and black lizard was supposed to cure baldness. Also good for hair growth was a compound of hippopotamus, lion, crocodile, goose, snake and ibex fat -- merely assembling these ingredients might promise a hair-raising experience! Egyptian medicine credited many vegetables and fruits with healing properties, and also tree products such as sycamore bark and resins such as myrrh, frankincense and manna. As in Mesopotamia, plant extracts -- notably senna, colocynth and castor oil -- were employed as purgatives, and oil of camomile to improve digestion. Recipes included ox spleen, pig's brain, stag's horn, honey-sweetened tortoise gall, and the blood and fats of various animals. Antimony, copper salts, alum, and other minerals were recommended as astringents or disinfectants. Containing ingredients from leeks to lapis lazuli -- including garlic, onion, tamarisk, cereals, spices, condiments, resins, gums, dates, hellebore, opium and cannabis -- compound drugs were administered in the form of pills, ointments, poultices, fumigations, inhalations, gargles and suppositories; they might even be blown into the urethra through a tube. Among the most interesting of the healers whose names have been recorded for posterity are Peseshet, head female physician or overseer, proof of the existence, as in Mesopotamia, of female healers; and Iri, Keeper of the Royal Rectum, presumably the pharaoh's enema expert.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus (ca. 1600 BC), discovered by its American namesake at Luxor in 1862, may be the world's earliest surviving surgical text, and contains material probably derived from even more ancient times. The "book of wounds" comprises 48 case reports, which commence with the top of the head and proceed systematically downward -- nose, face, ears, neck and chest, mysteriously stopping in mid-sentence at the spine, presumably when the scribe was interrupted at his work. The only surgical conditions treated were wounds, fractures, abscesses, and circumcisions. In the Papyrus, the method of presentation is first to set out the title or the chief symptom, followed by the further symptoms, and then the examination, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. The advice given is entirely rational, as will be seen by the following directions for the treatment of a fractured humerus:

"Instructions concerning a Break in his Upper Arm. If thou examinest a man having a break in his upper arm, and thou findest his upper arm hanging down, separated from its fellow, thou shouldst say concerning him: One having a break in his upper arm. An ailment which I will treat."

"Thou shouldst place him prostrate on his back, with something folded between his two shoulder blades; thou shouldst spread out with his two shoulders in order to stretch apart his upper arm until that break falls into its place. Thou shouldst make for him two splints of linen, and thou shouldst apply for him one of them both on the inside of his arm, and the other of them both on the underside of his arm. Thou shouldst bind it with ymrw [an unidentified mineral substance], and treat it afterward with honey every day until he recovers."

An interesting point in the case histories is that after the diagnosis the writer gives a decision about his further course of action. The verdict may take one of three forms: (1) an ailment which I will treat; (2) an ailment with which I will contend; and (3) an ailment not to be treated. Like modern military triage, the "hopeless" patient is left to his inevitable fate. This guarded attitude on the part of the medical man was widespread in antiquity. While present-day doctors generally do everything possible to alleviate symptoms to the very end, even when the patient has no chance of recovery, the view in ancient times was that hopeless cases were not to be touched. This attitude was entirely practical. A doctor in attendance at the courts of ancient Egypt might expect rich rewards if his patient recovered, but if a patient died under his care, the unfortunate physician ran a grave risk of impalement.


Last updated on 5 February 2003