Africa and Medicine

The practice of traditional medicine in Africa

A Tella

  • PMID: 525052

PIP: Traditional medicine is a method of healing founded on its own concept of health and disease. Knowledge is passed on orally from father to son. Healing knowledge is jealously guarded in certain families. In Africa the popularity of traditional healers is attributed to the fact that they take full account of the socio-cultural background of the people. The components of traditional medicine include herbal medicine, therapeutic fasting and dieting, hydrotherapy, radiant healing therapy, venesection, surgery and bone-setting, spinal manipulation and massage, psychotherapy, therapeutic occultism, psychiatry and preventive medicine. In the African environment the therapeutic potential of traditional medicine is great and requires further indepth study to improve methods and training and to form a more effective organization within the ranks of traditional healers. In the physical medicine, vegetable, animal, and mineral substances may be used. In the metaphysical division of traditional medicine, prayers, invocations, or incantations are offered to some mysterious and powerful forces. The practioner usually excels in one or more practices to the exclusion of others. Herbal preparations should be studied with the idea of using them to replace more toxic, synthetic drugs. Some plants used by traditional healers are fennal, serpentine, cinchona, quinine, digitalis, and vinca rosea.

“The traditional medical practitioner (TMP) or Traditional Healer (TH) is described as a person who is recognized by the community in which he lives as competent to provide health care by using vegetable, animal and mineral substances and certain other methods (WHO, 1978b); serving as the nurse, pharmacist, physician, dentist, mid-wife, dispenser etc. The specialists include herbalists, bone setters, traditional psychiatrists, traditional pediatricians, traditional birth attendants (TBA), occult practitioners, herb sellers, general practitioners, etc; they are certainly more readily available, accessible and approachable than the orthodox physicians while their services are much more affordable than modern medical facilities. No doubt, the traditional healers, diagnosing and managing various common diseases at PHC level, with various herbal dosage forms namely, concoctions, decoctions, infusions, dried powders, ointments, tinctures and macerates, are much closer to the community than the orthodox doctors who are mainly found in urban healthcare locations. The TMPs administer these medications through various routes such as oral, rectal, intra-uterine, sub-cutaneous, external or topical applications. Although most Governments in Africa are yet to pass into law, the official recognition of their practices (like in China, Japan, India, Thailand and Korea), the practitioners have been generally acknowledged excellent at PHC level in the areas of bone setting, psychotherapy in psychiatry, hydrotherapy as well as obstetrics and gynaecology (by the TBA). Whether approved or not by the Governments, Traditional Medicine continues to play a very significant role in the medical and dental primary health care implementation in Africa and other developing countries of the world, most especially in the rural areas which cover almost 80% of the entire population. 

The explicable form of Traditional Medicine can be described as the simplified, scientific and the direct application of plant, animal or mineral materials for healing purposes and which can be investigated, rationalized and explained scientifically. The use of Salix alba, the willow plant (containing the salicylates) for fever and pains which led to the discovery of aspirin, would belong to this form of Traditional Medicine. Herbal medicines, which squarely belong to this form, are regarded by the World Health Organisation, as finished and labeled medicinal products that contain, as active ingredients, aerial or underground parts of identified and proven plant materials, or combination thereof, whether in crude form or as plant preparations. They also include plant juices, gums, fatty oils, essential oils etc (WHO, 1978a). There are several other official modern drugs today, which were originally developed like aspirin through traditional medicine e.g. morphine, digoxin, quinine, ergometrine, reserpine, atropine, etc and all of which are currently being used by orthodox medicine in modern hospitals all over the world. The inexplicable form of Traditional Medicine on the other hand, is the spiritual, supernatural, magical, occultic, mystical, or metaphysical form that cannot be easily investigated, rationalized or explained scientifically e.g. the use of incantations for healing purposes or oracular consultation in diagnosis and treatment of  diseases. The explanation is beyond the ordinary scientific human intelligence or intellectual comprehension.

 Examining the philosophy from the critical view point of the definition of Primary Health Care, it is easy to assess the orthodox practice alongside the traditional type of health care in the African context. Specifically in the areas of social acceptability, cost affordability, self-reliance, cultural compatibility, relevance and community participation, the orthodox or the modern/western-based medicine and dentistry have not been adequate for the majority of African populations and that if we must make progress, there is an inevitable need for the official integration of traditional medicine and the utilization of traditional medical practitioners into the PHC system in Africa. The only health care providers close to them are the traditional medical practitioners, living with them and providing healthcare services in the same communities. The western type of health institutions are out of the reach of most people in terms of distance and costs, especially at the village setting. On the other hand, the orthodox medicine, as currently made available today in Nigeria (as in most African countries), so long as every nook and corner of our rural populations in Africa cannot yet be provided with basic health care needs including full-time resident medical personnel and readily available and affordable drugs, the practice of conventional medicine has failed us woefully. Although wherever, modern health facilities exist, traditional medicine is incomparable. Therefore, the most workable health agenda for Africa is the institutionalization of traditional medicine in parallel (not in complete fusion) with orthodox medicine, within the national health care scheme in order to move the health agenda forward. Effective health agenda for the African continent can never be achieved by orthodox medicine alone unless it is complemented by traditional medicine practice. Traditional Medicine is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO, 1978a) as the sum total of knowledge or practices whether explicable or inexplicable, used in diagnosing, preventing or eliminating a physical, mental or social disease which may rely exclusively on past experience or observations handed down from generation to generation, verbally or in writing. It also comprises therapeutic practices that have been in existence often for hundreds of years before the development of modern scientific medicine and are still in use today without any documented evidence of adverse effects.”

African traditional medicine is as old as humanity. Our traditional physicians, have practiced various forms of it for generations. They have knowledge of the body from head to toe. They are able to cure different diseases and sicknesses using natural remedies such as leaves, bark of trees and branches, roots, animal products etc. In Akan language we call them ‘adunsifo,’ or herbalist. Sometimes the herbalist also functions as a spiritualist or spirit medium who invokes the power of the ancestors and deities to assist in the healing of the sick just as Christians would pray consult a doctor when sick and a doctor may pray to Jesus with the sick person or the patient may pray on his/her own.

There is a saying that to cure the whole person, the metaphysical as well as the physical must be cured. Psychology plays a part in patient care.

Below is an example of how medicine has been practiced in Africa for many millennia. The case study is the development of medicine in ancient Kemet (Egypt).

Ancient Egypt and Medicine

Sekhmet – Kemetic god of medicine, war, and hunting

Unpublished Egyptian texts reveal new insights into ancient medicine

by Lise Brix, ScienceNordic

”Instructions for a 3,500-year-old pregnancy test. Credit: Carlsberg Papyrus Collection / University of Copenhagen

The University of Copenhagen in Denmark is home to a unique collection of Ancient Egyptian papyrus manuscripts.

A large part of the collection has not yet been translated, leaving researchers in the dark about what they might contain.

“A large part of the texts are still unpublished. Texts about medicine, botany, astronomy, astrology, and other sciences practiced in Ancient Egypt,” says Egyptologist Kim Ryholt, Head of the Carlsberg Papyrus Collection at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

An international team of researchers are now translating the previously unexplored texts, which according to one of the researchers, contain new and exciting insights into Ancient Egypt.

“It’s totally unique for me to be able to work with unpublished material. It doesn’t happen in many places around the world,” says Ph.D. student Amber Jacob from the Institute for the Study of The Ancient World at New York University, USA. She is one of four Ph.D. students working on the unpublished manuscripts held in Copenhagen.

The Egyptians knew about kidneys

Jacob’s research focuses on the medical texts from the Tebtunis temple library, which existed long before the famous Library of Alexandria, up until 200 BCE.

In one of the texts, she has found evidence that Ancient Egyptians knew about the existence of kidneys.

“It’s the oldest known medical text to discuss the kidneys. Until now, some researchers thought that the Egyptians didn’t know about kidneys, but in this text we can clearly see that they did,” says Jacob.

The papyri also reveal insights into the Egyptian view on astrology.

This little piece of papyrus is believed to contain a type of oracle question. The author has written two possible outcomes for a situation and asked the gods to indicate which one was the truth. Credit: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection/ University of Copenhagen

“Today, astrology is seen as a pseudoscience, but in antiquity it was different. It was an important tool for predicting the future and it was considered a very central science,” says Ryholt.

“For example, a king needed to check when was a good day to go to war,” he says.

Astrology was their way of avoiding going to war on a bad day, such as when the celestial bodies were aligned in a particular configuration.

Egyptian contribution to science

The unpublished manuscripts provide a unique insight to the history of science, says Ryholt.

When you hear about the history of science, the focus is often on the Greek and Roman material. But we have Egyptian material that goes much further back. One of our medical texts was written 3,500 years ago when there was no written material on the European continent,” he says.

Analysing this 3,500-year-old text is the job of Ph.D. student, Sofie Schiødt from the University of Copenhagen.

One side of the manuscript describes unusual treatments for eye diseases, says Schiødt.

Papyrus text discovered in Germany

The other side, describes the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of a pregnancy test and scan.

Sofie Schiødt in front of a 3,500-year-old medical papyrus. Credit: Mikkel Andreas Beck

“The text says that a pregnant woman should pee into a bag of barley and a bag of wheat. Depending on which bag sprouts first reveals the sex of her child. And if neither of the bags sprout then she wasn’t pregnant,” says Schiødt.

Her research reveals that the ideas recorded in the Egyptian medical texts spread far beyond the African continent.

“Many of the ideas in the medical texts from Ancient Egypt appear again in later Greek and Roman texts. From here, they spread further to the medieval medical texts in the Middle East, and you can find traces all the way up to premodern medicine,” she says.

The same pregnancy test used by Egyptians is referred to in a collection of German folklore from 1699.

“That really puts things into perspective, as it shows that the Egyptian ideas have left traces thousands of years later,” says Schiødt.

“Every single contribution is important”

Translating the unpublished texts is important work, according to Egyptologist Hans-Werner Fischer-Elfert from the Department of Egyptology, University of Leipzig, Germany.

“We still have a very fragmented knowledge of the natural sciences in Ancient Egypt. Therefore, every singly contribution is important,” he says.

“Today there are still a number of sources that theoretically were known by scientists but still sat dormant in various collections around the world without anyone looking at them in detail. Now the time has come to recognise them.”

Ebers papyrus, Egyptian compilation of medical texts dated about 1550 bc, one of the oldest known medical works. The scroll contains 700 magical formulas and folk remedies meant to cure afflictions ranging from crocodile bite to toenail pain and to rid the house of such pests as flies, rats, and scorpions. It also includes a surprisingly accurate description of the circulatory system, noting the existence of blood vessels throughout the body and the heart’s function as centre of the blood supply. The Ebers papyrus was acquired by George Maurice Ebers, German Egyptologist and novelist, in 1873.

Ebers Papyrus supposedly written by Imhotep

Imhotep, Doctor,

Watch this video on Ancient Egyptian medicine:

People living during pharaonic times were treated by doctors knowledgable in sophisticated medical science. The Egyptians paid great attention to their health. In fact, it is believed that life expectancy was longer in Egypt than in any other part of the known world. Ancient Egyptian medicine was highly respected throughout the known world. Doctors were so well trained that students from all over the known world came to Egypt to study medicine. A doctor with medical training in Egypt was well sought after and a highly lucrative career move.


Mummies were discovered that showed evidence of neurosurgery for the treatment of tumors and aneurysms. Evidence of orthodontia, the use of gold to fill teeth and dental hygiene also existed in ancient Egypt.

Surgical Equipment used by ancient Egyptian surgeons

Specialized Care

Medicine was highly specialized. There were those that treated the eyes. Others specialized in internal medicine. Some dealt with complaints of the head while other forms of medicine were the sole purview of women. There are paintings showing a doctor taking the pulse of his patient presupposing the knowledge about the function of the heart.

Free Healthcare

For the most part, both dentists and medical doctors were paid by the national treasury. On occasions, they were permitted to accept fees for their service from the patients. If they were on a foreign journey or attached to the army they could never charge for their services.

Circumcisions of boys

Standardized Medicine

Standards were laid down and there were rules and regulations developed in ancient Egyptian medicine and dentistry. One could not vary the treatment for a specific illness unless all of the orthodox methods had been utilized and failed. There were often severe penalties for practitioners who failed to practice in accordance with the set standards.

If a patient died, there would be no punishment of the doctor except where he failed to conduct his treatment of the patient in a standard manner. If every remedy was administered according to the medical law, they were absolved from blame if the patient did not recover. They were allowed some latitude in the event that after three days there was no improvement and alternative methods could be utilized.

It is interesting to point out that these alternative methods were what we today would call holistic. There were rules for the utilization of other than scientific methods. Both family members and doctors would turn to whatever old wives’ tale might have been prevalent in a certain region, for example.

Diet and Health

There was a universal belief in preventative medicine in ancient Egypt. Doctors thought that diet was a major factor in both illness and wellness. It was believed that the majority of diseases proceed from indigestion and excess of eating. They believed in abstinence, emetics, slight doses of medicine, or what we would call today homeopathic medicine.


The utilization of drugs was mentioned in writings. Many of the drugs that are still used in that part of the world were a part of the ancient pharmacology. Many herbs grown between the Nile and the Red Sea are still known to the Arabs for their medicinal value. Both Greek and Roman writers referred to ancient Egyptian medicine practices. A particular emphasis was given to the use of natural substances that had therapeutic properties.


Post-mortems were performed on patients which gave ancient doctors an ever-increasing knowledge of both life and death. To this day, we are not completely sure of the ramifications of mummification. They possessed the knowledge that by removing internal organs which decay, would preserve the mummy almost indefinitely.

Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies


Present-day psychoanalysts would be interested to know that the Egyptians placed importance in dream interpretation. Although they perhaps did not have the sophistication of modern-day psychiatry, they did have a glimpse into the thought processes that were involved in dreams.


Since there is evidence from mummified remains that complicated surgery was used, the question arises as to how a patient might have been anesthetized. It is thought that both drugs and a form of hypnosis were used to cause the patient to sleep during a surgical procedure.


The Egyptians took baths seriously. Both cold and hot water was used along with minerals in the water. It is doubtful that they had any concept of microorganisms. But the fact that they seemed to believe in washing their hands and faces frequently as well as bathing the entire body must have been a contributing factor to their good health and longevity.

Many of ancient Egyptian medicine practices are still in use today. It is often difficult for us to completely appreciate the advancement these people provided in both the arts and sciences, in technology and in the overall philosophy of life that enabled them to experience a cultural continuum for many thousands of years.

Practice of Ophthalmology

Midwives/doctors delivering babies

Ugandan surgeons developed life-saving caesarean operations

In 1884, the caesarean section was not a new idea. It dated from the time of the Caesars, for a start, when Roman law required the procedure to be carried out in the event of a woman’s death in childbirth.

Over the centuries, reports occasionally surfaced of caesarean sections saving the lives of both mother and baby, but even after the introduction of antiseptic methods and anaesthesia, caesareans remained a dangerous last resort. So Edinburgh surgeons were surprised to hear a lecture by Robert Felkin, a missionary doctor, about a successful operation that he had witnessed in the African kingdom of Bunyoro Kitara five years earlier.

The operation, Felkin reported, was carried out with the intention of saving both lives. The mother was partially anaesthetised with banana wine. The surgeon also used this wine to wash the surgical site and his own hands, suggesting awareness of the need for infection control measures. He then made a vertical incision, going through the abdominal wall and part of the uterine wall, before further dividing the uterine wall enough to take the baby out. The operation also involved removing the placenta and squeezing the uterus to promote contraction.

The means of dressing the incision was also highly developed: the surgeon used seven polished iron spikes to bring the edges of the wound together, tying them in place with bark-cloth string. He then applied a thick layer of herbal paste and covered this with a warm banana leaf held in place with a bandage. According to Felkin’s account, the mother and her baby were still doing well when he left the village 11 days later.

Although caesarean operations had been performed in Africa by white surgeons before this date, the procedure appeared to have been developed independently by the Banyoro people – a somewhat discomfiting realization for a British audience familiar with colonial tales of ‘savages’.

Embalming of the Dead in Kemet

This involves knowledge of anatomy and physiology, chemistry, pharmacology.

The dead person stomach is cut open. The internal organs removed

The ancient Egyptian medicine dates back to the very early civilization. Maybe it dates back to the pre-dynastic period and lasted until the end of the Pharaonic period and the beginning of the Persian invasion.

The ancient Egyptian medicine was very advanced. The medicine nowadays depended on a lot of theories and discoveries of the ancient Egyptian medicine.

The ancient Egyptians had a great knowledge of the Anatomy of the human body. The secret of this knowledge related to the mummification, as the mummification enabled them to know the human body.

They had also a great knowledge of surgery, setting of bones, pharmacopoeia and the Pharmacology.

Imhotep – The African, Real Father of Medicine

Imhotep, Greek Imouthes, (born 27th century bce, Memphis, Egypt), vizier, sage, architect, astrologer, and chief minister to Djoser (reigned 2630–2611 bce ), the second king of Egypt’s third dynasty, who was later worshipped as the god of medicine in Egypt and in Greece, where he was identified with the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius. Nov 11 2019 –

He was considered the most famous physician in the ancient Egyptian history. Imhotep was the first vizier of king Djoser. He lived in the 3rd dynasty.

He worked as the chief architect of king Djoser as he supervised the building of the step pyramid at Saqqara.

The Greeks identified him with their god of medicine (Askolepios). He was deified some two thousand years after his death. He was worshiped as a god of medicine.

Imhotep. The Vizier and Physician of King Zoser and afterwards the Egyptian God of Medicine.

Author(s) : Hurry, J. B.

Book : Imhotep. The Vizier and Physician of King Zoser and afterwards the Egyptian God of Medicine. 1926 pp.xvi + 118 pp.

Abstract : This interesting and artistic piece of work, of which only 73 pages treat directly of Imhotep, is a sort of fantasia of nicely blended movements on two predominant themes-Ancient Egyptian Medicine and The Hero as Divinity, where the hero is not of the bold invincible type, but of the peaceable patient kind working wonders with pharmacology and irresistible spell.

To Imhotep the mortal contemporary of King Zoser the author gives 24 pages. But ” unhappily, we know nothing of his early history. No glimpse is allowed us of his birthplace or early childhood; there is no record of his appearance in the flesh, nor is anything told us of the steps by which he reached the highest post open to an official in Egypt.” All that seems certainly known is that he belonged to an architect caste, that he was Grand Vizier as well as Chief Physician and Chief of the Works to a Pharaoh of the 3rd Dynasty named Zoser (circa 2980 B.C.), and that he also had other interests in life. For lack of discoverable fact the author gives us some more or less relevant surmise based on the known duties and responsibilities of the offices held by Imhotep, or on records in which his name appears incidentally. Of his doings as Vizier all that we are told here is that he made a very guarded reply when King Zoser in the difficulties of a prolonged famine asked his advice about propitiating the tutelar deities of the sources of the Nile; but if the surly sinister countenance depicted in the well-executed plate facing p. 4 be a life-like portrait of the King we can imagine that the chief officer of State must have had to bear some very sorrowful burdens. As Chief of the Works, he ” in all probability ” designed the terraced-pyramid-the destined tomb for the monarch near Memphis, which stands to this clay. As ” Magician-Physician ” we are told that he had an immense reputation, but also that ” unhappily nothing is known of his special work as a physician, ” though ” the important office of vizier must have added prestige to his name and inspired confidence in his patients.” With regard to his other interests in life, he was Chief Lector Priest, he perhaps was interested in astronomy and astrology, and like some great Ministers of State to-day-he was eminent in the literary field. In course of time, Imhotep was gathered to his fathers, was buried no one really knows where (” probably in the desert just outside the city of Memphis “), and was forgotten for a long time.

About thirteen hundred years afterwards, however, the spectre of Imhotep appeared among the Egyptian demigods. This enormous interval-equal to that which separates us from the Heptarchy-is of itself suggestive of some flaw or twist in the course to true deification. A demigod should preserve some show of attachment to an earthly abode, or like John Nicholson among the people of Bannu-should be acclaimed in his lifetime. This obvious abnormality is here admitted, since it is stated that the story of the hero was ” worked up ” from records discovered by a priest named Nechautis, who had an eye to an appointment as high-priest of Imhotep ” with power to bequeathe that position to his posterity “an appointment for which he felt himself well qualified. The author gives 9 pages and 3 plates to the demigod Imhotep and his votary Nechautis, and informs us in a footnote that-as might be expected-documents have been discovered that assign a much earlier date to the demigodhood. More than 2, 700 years after Imhotep had shuffled off his mortal coil as Grand Vizier-at a time when Egypt had become a Persian province, and was beginning also to feel the sway of Hellas-he appeared in full glory among the gods of the Egyptians. It has been suggested that this exaltation was due to Hellenic influence, and, in fact, the resident Greeks of Egypt identified him with Aesculapius, and they and their successors under the Ptolemies, as well as the Greeks and Romans of Hellenistic times, commonly worshipped him under that name. The author devotes 32 interesting pages, illustrated by 10 fine plates, to the cult and images and temples of Imhotep after his apotheosis. The temple at Memphis, known to the Greeks as the Asclepiion, became ” a famous hospital and school of magic and medicine.” Of the temple at Philae, built in the period of the Ptolemies and bearing a dedicatory inscription to Aesculapius over its door, some beautiful ruins still exist, and are here artistically represented.

The author fills the mighty void in the earthly life-history of Imhotep with some remarks on magic and a brief essay on ancient Egyptian Medicine, the latter being compiled from ancient Egyptian documents, portions of which in turn were-or may have been-compiled from still older documents that were contemporaneous with Imhotep; he also makes some references to the well-known appreciation by the Greeks of the skill of Egyptian doctors and the value of their pharmacology. But of Imhotep himself there is nothing to tell-no methods, no pupils, no tradition, no personal touch-” he is said to have produced works on medicine and architecture as well as on more general subjects “; as he ” was court physician to King Zoser. . . evidently he moved in the highest social circles “; he ” enjoyed a high reputation both as magician and as physician “; it is ” his eminence as a healer of the sick that has given him imperishable fame and that led eventually to his deification.” Therefore when the author proceeds to make of this shadowy human figure an almost profanely substantial ” Dr. Imhotep, ” rather ” inclined to the scientific side of medicine, ” a man to be held in everlasting remembrance and reverence by physicians all the world over ” as one of the pioneers of their ancient profession, ” one is rather inclined to wonder whether he is quite serious in his imploration. A. Alcock.

The Kemetic practice of medicine is still taking place throughout Africa. Africa is the origin of medicine. The Greeks came to learn this from Africans and repacked it for their credit. Even though they tried to bury the memory of Imhotep, the truth about this master physician has become evident as being the ‘Father of Medicine.’

Excerpts from books on Imhotep:

Imhotep was a professor who taught medicine and wrote medical books.

The sources of information about the medicine in ancient Egypt:

  • The first source was Homer. He said about the ancient Egyptian medicine that the Egyptians were very professionals and skilled in the medicine.
  • The second source was the Greek historian Herodotus who visited Egypt and wrote about the Egyptian medicine.
  • A lot of papyrus talked about the medicine in ancient Egypt like the Ebers papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Hearst Papyrus, the London Medical Papyrus and others.
  • The Edwin Smith Papyrus talked about the surgery in ancient Egypt and the examination of the body and diagnosis.
  • The Ebers papyrus contains a lot of amulets and magical formulas to expel the disease.

Ebres papyrus, ancient Egyptian Medicine

The profession of the medicine in ancient Egypt

 The word doctor means in ancient Egyptian language is “swnw”. The doctor in ancient Egypt enjoyed high rank and great respect from all the people.

Kings paid a great care and attention to the doctors as the doctors were the healers from all the disease and they considered the rescue from the pains.

Examples of the most famous physicals

  • Imhotep who live during the reign of king djeser
  • Hesy-ra who was the chief of dentists.
  • Djehutyemhe who lived during the reign of king Ramases II.

Facts about Medical tools

Medical tools, ancient Egyptian Medicine

Ancient Egyptian doctor invented many medical tools and utilities, including a scalpel, knife, tweezers, and pliers. The ancient Egyptians mentioned these tools in many manuscripts and in some graphics.

The devices of every doctor were small knives and spoon for ointments and a mortar to crush the drug. The doctor used the buzzards for the treatment of the eye.

They also used Enema for treatment. The ancient Egyptian physicals also used incense to healing.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine: History & Methods

The Nile River is known almost universally by historians as the cradle of medicine because it passes through the great region of Egypt. Egypt greatly contributed to the western civilization. Their knowledge was far superior to any previous civilization, and many civilizations to come. One of their greatest achievements was in the field of medicine because they replaced myth with medical fact, this laid the foundations for modern medical practice. They discovered the cause of various illnesses and developed a cure.

They practiced both medical and spiritual healing so the worlds of religion and science could

coexist. With the discoveries of several papyrus’, we are learning more and more about their knowledge of the human anatomy. The literature discovered by archaeologists dates back to over 7000 years ago. In the early Egyptian times, medicine was practiced most often by priests, not doctors or physicians. There were three main types of early healers, the priest physician, lay physician, and the magician-physician. The priest physicians were ranked highest among physicians because they practiced a combination of clinical and spiritual medicine. The priest physicians were in such a high favor that it is most likely they were part of the Egyptian hierarchy, and involved with the state officials and pharaohs. It is unknown if the priest physicians ever received medical training. They were permitted to examine patients and participate in minor tasks. All diseases except those of the eye, were treated by a clergy who specialized with their own rule and hierarchy known as the Priests of Sekhmet. Gradually the physicians would gain their medical knowledge and would combine it with their knowledge of magic to become an effective and respected healer. The lay physicians also practiced a combination of clinical and spiritual healing. Unlike the priest physician, the lay physicians were most likely trained to practice medicine. They were most likely derived from priests who had knowledge of the anatomy, and from magicians because they weren’t associated with any particular god or temple.

The role of a lay physician wasn’t only open to males, unlike the priest physicians, there are records of women physicians. Although the duties of the lay physician are vague due to the lack of information contained in the medical papyri, we can assume that they were closely linked to the field of surgery because of their medical training. The last type of physician called the magician-physician, was not trained in medicine and only used spells to cure the ill. This signifies that although the Egyptians made advances in the field of medicine, the aspect of magic never their medicine. All physicians of Egypt were regarded in high favor of the kings. They were given such titles as “Chief of all court physicians,””Physicians of the body, who knows the inner juices,””Priest of Aton who in the palace goes and comes and gas admission to the king.” The nobles also used the term “body physicians.” These “body physicians,” were permanently employed. Historians and archaeologists are unsure of the methods of payment for these physicians, but they 

know that the general physicians who went into the land were paid by natural resources such as a gold ring or bracelet. It was a family tradition to become a doctor. 

It is unsure whether the position was inherited or the fathers just wanted to pass down their knowledge to their sons. They can come to the conclusion that all physicians were well looked after and were a valuable asset to all pharaoh. In wartime and on journeys anywhere within Egypt, the sick are all treated free of charge, because doctors are paid by the state and scrupulous observance of the prescriptions drawn up by great doctors of the past is incumbent on them. Diodorus Siculus2 Court physicians had the same advantages of those who went out to the war front. They were paid directly by the pharaoh so a wounded soldier in battle would be able to receive free treatment. The art of medicine is thus divided: each physician applies himself to one disease only and not more. All places abound in physicians; some are for the eyes, others for the head, others for the teeth, others for the intestines, and others for internal disorders. Herodutus3 In ancient Egypt, most physicians were specialists. One physician would specialize in treating flesh wounds, while another would specialize in treating eye infections. The larger part of the training of physicians took place in a house of life.

The house of life is a temple devoted to treated the ill. One would only have to tell the “house of life” of his illness and a physician who specialized in that field would visit that person and treat the illness as best he could. At the temple of Heliopis, they discovered gravestones of the doctors of old schools and engraved on them were such inscriptions as “superintendent of the secrets of health of the house of Thoth”, “the greatest of doctors”, “eye specialist to the palace.” From hieroglyphics on the tomb of doctor Iry, we learned that he is called “keeper of the king’s rectum.” There was also a “keeper of the king’s right eye,” and “keeper of the kings left eye.” The Egyptians were able to treat teeth and eye problems. Doctors who specialized in the eyes were regarded extremely high in Egyptian society and were the pride of many Pharaohs. Eye doctors had considerable knowledge of the eye. They distinguished that there is both an outside part and an inside part to be treated. Eye diseases in Egypt, then and now, are more common than in any other region. Therefore eye doctors were in great demand and kings from neighboring lands would ask the gift of an experienced eye doctor to join their court. They discovered a treatment for trachoma, or “Egyptian eye disease.” Trachoma causes fifty percent of all blindness, and is contagious. It is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis, and it forms tiny blisters on the conjunctiva. The eye specialists would treat it by applying a mixture of sodium carbonate, black mascara, and red ocher. They were able to perform surgeries on the eye where they would remove the iris and remove a piece of rock or metal. Another specialty was the treating of the teeth. Ancient Egyptian doctors who specialized in dental care, are not believed to have had knowledge of dental surgery because no evidence has been found in any written texts. But archaeological finds show that attempts have been made. They discovered a mandible from the Fourth Dynasty that indicates that there was an attempt to drill a hole in one of the teeth. Possibly the first prosthesis was found in 1929 in Giza where two teeth were found with gold wire fixed to the teeth. Also they have found several mummies with artificial teeth. The study of several mummies indicates poor teeth condition. This can be attributed to the lack of nutrition, mostly lower class citizens. In the Papyrus Ebers, they found parts of a dental

monograph titled “The Beginning of Remedies for Stronger Teeth.” Carious teeth were treated with a mixture of ocher, flour, spelt, and honey. Fillings were made out of a combination of malachite and resin. The Ancient Egyptian doctors and physicians used many types of natural resources to cure patients. In one case it was discovered that they used the electrical charge of the Malapterusus electricus, a close relative of the electric eel, was used to cure certain kinds of pain.

To cure the gout, the patient would step on the electric eel, then place the other foot on a wet beach then wait until the leg is numb up to the knee. But he electric eel’s charges were too weak to cure some ailments so the used the organs of some fish that produced electrical charges. At first history believed that the first case of leeches being used for medical purposes was in 135 AD by the Greek Nikandros. He described that the leeches were placed on the body and would clear out blood and congested fluids. They now know that 2,000 years earlier, this procedure was common in Egypt. They do not know how this was done, whether they actually cut open the vein with a knife, or used some other method. Their remedies are not all that different from our own. They used various kinds of pills, potions, pouttices, suppositories, and plasters. They had the knowledge to prevent wounds and cure many types of animal bites such as the crocodile. The doctors and physicians would suggest mouldy bread to prevent blisters, intestinal diseases, and suppurating wounds. They developed a cure for the cough that goes as follows: pieces of plant and mineral substances should be heated on hot stones. A pot with a hole bored into it should be put on top of this and a pipe should be put into the hole. The patient must “swallow” the herbal steam seven times. And because the mouth dries out, it should be rinsed out with oil.4 Archaeologists have discovered many papyrus’, but some containing more information than others. The most famous of these is the Papyrus Ebers. It was found by an Arab in Luxor who discovered it will excavating a tomb. He demanded a large sum of money for the purchase, so with the financial support of a friend, George Ebers purchased the Papyrus. They dated back to the period between 1553-1550 BC. It was a collection of texts from the Old Empire that gave instructions on how to cure wounds, fractures, dislocations, and many other types of illnesses. They described how to treat fractures, they would use splints bound with bandages. When the Papyrus Ebers was written, Egypt was at its highest medical achievement. Historians can come to the conclusion that the papyrus belonged to the Pharaoh Amenhotep (1557-1501 BC) . It is the most accurate account of early Egyptian medicine ever written. At this time medicine was much freer of magic then before. It is used as the founding book of knowledge for ancient Egyptian medicine. Much of the contents of the papyrus, deal with constipation, giving several effective cures that in some parts of the world, are still used today. The Papyrus Ebers consisted of 108 columns divided into forty-five groups.

The second group for example would describe various kinds of laxatives, while group four describes

The texts contained in the Papyrus Ebers are difficult to understand, and there are many unknown terms used within. One of the most famous ancient doctors is Imhotep. He was a great privilege to have as a Pharaoh. He worked in the court of the pharaoh Khasekhem. When he was finished, he turned to the speechless women and said, ‘on these wounds, compresses of fresh meat must be applied and new ones must be reapplied five times daily. After this, the patient should drink milk mixed with beef gall bladder….’5 This is an exert from Pierre Montalauer’s book about Imhotep. It refers to the ordeal of the birth of the great Pharaoh Djoser. After the deliverance, the queen of the Upper Egyptian capital, received a tear of the perineum. Imhotep quickly bandaged the haemorrhaging and stitched the wound. The exert is Imhotep giving the queen instructions to follow in order to let the wound heal properly. He saved the queen but around the same time his wife died giving birth to his son. He then locked himself in with his wife for forty days to mummify her. This was the first recorded process of mummification known. He committed a large part of his life to Djoser the future Pharaoh. He played a major role in the court, was vizier to his king, he was a great architect and astrologist. In some legends it says that he ended the seven year drought by creating an elaborate system of irrigation, organizing fisheries, and he also preserved food. Imhotep built the first pyramid in the world; the step mastaba of Saqara.6 It was erected over the resting place of Pharaoh’s wife who was buried in the Nile Delta. It is now known that Egyptian medicine contributed greatly to modern medicine. Many of the therapies used today are similar to those used in ancient Egyptian times such as the method of treating a fractured bone. They were the first to use electrotherapy to cure pain, and also have an understanding of what happened. The first ever mummification was in Egypt and the process was used for centuries to come by all Egyptian peoples. With the discoveries of more and more papyruses, ancient Egyptian’s are now getting the credit they deserve for their contributions to modern medicine.


Atkinson, D.T. Magic, Myth and Medicine. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1956. Dawson, Warren R. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. (Online) available. Margotta, Roberto. The Story of Medicine. New York: Golden Press, 1968. Stetter, Cornelius. The Secret Medicine of the Pharaohs: Ancient Egyptian Healing. Carol Stream: Quintessence Publishing Company, 1993. Thorward, Jurgen. Science and Secrets of Early Medicine. Cologn: DuMont Press, 1962. Trueman, John H., Trueman, Dawn Cline. The Enduring Past. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1982. Footnotes

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