Ancient Egypt is perhaps best known for its pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphics. But its medical doctors might have had the most lasting influence on humanity. From surgery and dentistry to prosthetics and obstetrics, the ancient Egyptians made numerous medical advances over the course of their roughly 3,000-year-long civilization. They even made rudimentary attempts to cure cancer.

Thanks to several surviving medical papyri—as well as temple and tomb carvings and scientific examination of human remains—researchers have been able to glean much about medical practices in ancient Egypt. Egyptians took medicine seriously, referring to it as the “necessary art,” they established centers of medical learning, and both men and women could be doctors.

Egypt Was World-Renown for its Doctors

In fact, the first mention of doctors in recorded history comes from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the era when the Great Pyramids of Giza were constructed. Around the 25th century B.C., a physician apparently cured the pharaoh of an ailment in his nostrils. Even earlier, commoner-born Imhotep, who was also an architect, priest and political advisor, received such renown as a medical practitioner that he was ultimately deified as a god of medicine.

Eventually, Egyptian doctors gained such a reputation for competency that leaders from Persia and elsewhere purportedly sought them out. In The Odyssey, the Greek poet Homer wrote that Egyptians “are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind.”

Much like today, some ancient Egyptian doctors served as specialists. “Each physician is a healer of one disease and no more,” wrote the Greek historian Herodotus. “All the country is full of physicians, some of the eye, some of the teeth, some of what pertains to the belly, and some of the hidden diseases.” There were even proctologists, the literal term for which translated to “shepherd of the anus.”

“We are talking about a society that at the time had the most advanced medicine that ever existed,” says Edgard Camarós, a paleopathologist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Even the most vulnerable members of society, not just the rich and powerful, received some level of care. “The Egyptians were very considerate of people with deformities and disabilities. They didn’t treat them as outcasts,” says Rosalie David, an emeritus professor of Egyptology at the University of Manchester in England and co-author of Medicine and Healing Practices in Ancient Egypt. “That’s another big difference between Egypt and the rest of the surrounding world.”

Skull Cutmarks Suggest Attempts to Treat Cancer

The medical papyri and various engravings depict ancient Egyptian physicians operating on patients, using scalpels, forceps, scissors and other tools that remain in use today. Evidence exists that the Egyptians performed oral surgeries and amputations, and that they sliced open boils and abscesses to drain them of pus.

Back then (and to some extent today), cancer was incurable. The Egyptians themselves recognized this, with the so-called Edwin Smith Papyrus describing a breast cancer case for which there was no treatment. The graveness of the disease, however, didn’t stop them from trying to find a cure, according to a study published May 29, 2024, in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.

For the study, lead author Camarós and his team microscopically examined a more than 4,000-year-old skull from Egypt’s Old Kingdom. The skull, belonging to a male in his thirties, showed signs of nasopharyngeal cancer (a type of head and neck cancer), which the researchers already knew about. But they were shocked to discover cutmarks, likely made with a metal instrument, around three of the skull’s many secondary tumors.

Camarós believes this must have been the earliest-known attempt to treat cancer, or perhaps a postmortem autopsy to better understand the disease. Either way, Camarós says, “it cannot be any other thing but a surgical intervention with a medical focus,” which he calls “a milestone in the history of medicine.”

He adds that, though we tend to think of cancer as a modern disease, it actually long pre-dates human existence. “It has been with us since the very beginning,” Camarós says.

Camarós and his team examined a second skull as well, of a woman older than 50 who lived during ancient Egypt’s Late Period some 2,370 to 2,690 years ago. That woman also contracted cancer and likely died from it, Camarós says. But she had previously suffered cranial fractures, possibly the result of a violent attack, that Egyptian doctors seem to have treated successfully, the study found. 

Prosthetics, Dentistry Were Among Practices

Indeed, the Egyptians excelled at healing broken bones, immobilizing them in linen-wrapped splints made of reeds or wood. They furthermore knew how to treat dislocations, how to cauterize, suture and bandage wounds, and how to keep them clean. “They knew that the wounds should be washed, that they should not be exposed to dirt,” Camarós says.

Egyptians also built the world’s oldest known prosthetic devices, including a 3,000-year-old artificial toe made of wood and leather, which probably served a practical, rather than purely aesthetic, function. “If you don’t have the toe,” Camarós says, “you don’t have stability when you walk.”

As for oral care, the Egyptians developed toothpastes made of such ingredients as egg shells, natron and pumice, and they used teeth-cleaning twigs and mouthwashes. However, their exact level of expertise is debated, with some scholars saying they lacked skilled professional dentists. “They had a lot of dental problems,” David says, adding that the teeth of the pharaohs “are just as bad as the ordinary people.”

Contraceptives and Pregnancy Tests

Though certainly not as effective as today’s methods, ancient Egyptian women apparently inserted crocodile dung, mixed with ground-up acacia leaves and honey or sour milk, into their vaginas as a contraceptive. The medical papyri likewise describe methods of abortion and inducing labor, as well as a pregnancy test that involved urinating on barley and emmer (a type of wheat).

Additionally, the ancient Egyptians made use of a range of plants, minerals and animal products to treat everything from burns to headaches to fevers to ulcers to insect bites. They even developed an anti-wrinkle ointment.

David says that these pharmaceuticals were largely effectual, even by modern standards, and that they were prepared much as they are today. “They have the principle of the active ingredient,” she says. “Then they have the ancillary drug, which might be a flavor that made it pleasant to take. And then the third element is the vehicle, or means of getting the drug into the person,” which could be “pills, liquids, things they rubbed into their skin or inhalers.”

Not everything the ancient Egyptians did would belong in a 21st century hospital. Their physicians, some of whom also held priesthoods, incorporated magical incantations and religious rites into their medical treatments. They believed that supernatural forces caused disease, and they didn’t understand the function of each organ, presuming, for example, that the heart controlled emotions.

Yet, as Camarós explains, their pragmatic, evidence-based approach to identifying symptoms, making a diagnosis and prescribing a treatment forms the “core of modern medicine.” Camarós says that, instead of taking the Hippocratic Oath, doctors should perhaps take an “Imhotepic Oath,” in honor of the Egyptian medical savant who lived more than 2,000 years prior to Hippocrates.

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