28 September 2017

Healthcare Through Time | Part 1 - Ancient Egypt

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These days we often take for granted the healthcare services at our disposal. In this series, we take a look back to the days where medicine was just as likely to kill you as to heal you. We go all the way back to 4000BC and the days of the Pharaohs of Egypt.

According to Papyrus records and mummified remains recovered from ancient sites across Egypt, it’s thought that the average lifespan for Egyptian men was 40 to 45 and for women between 30 and 35. The cause for the shorter female lifespan was down to complications that often occurred during pregnancy and childbirth. Infant mortality rates were high, and it was very rare for anyone to live beyond the age of 50.

The spiritual and the medical

The ancient Egyptians were a very spiritual people and often linked poor health to divine wrath or misfortune. As a result, many Egyptian medical techniques involved the supernatural and an appeasement of the gods. The belief in magic is thought to have generated a type of placebo effect on patients due to a perceived validity of the cure. Magic was so important that a priest and a physician were pretty much one and the same.

Ahead of the curve?

Even though much of their medicines and healthcare was based on superstition, the Egyptians had an excellent reputation for their healing prowess among the other civilisations of the time with leaders from other empires often asking the Pharaoh to send aid to treat their loved ones. It is thought that Egyptian physicians were ahead of the curve when it came to anatomy because of the process they used to create mummies. The process required them to know a lot about the human body, such as the location of organs. They also were ahead with medicines due to the amount of experimentation done with local plants and herbs.

Surgery

Egyptian physicians recognised different types of injuries; treatable, contestable, and untreatable. Treatable ailments were ones that a surgeon could quickly cure. Contestable ailments were when patients were observed, and if they survived initial stages of illness, then surgical attempts could be made to fix the problem. Like modern day surgeons, they had a wealth of surgical tools at their disposal such as knives, hooks, drills, forceps, pincers, scales, spoons and saws.

Quick facts about healthcare in ancient Egypt

  • Imhotep is credited as being the first Egyptian physician and 2,000 years after his death was made a deity of medicine and healing.
  • Practices of healing were common in Egypt from the 33rd century BC until 525 BC.
  • Wabau was the term used for Egyptian doctors.
  • 1/8th cup of figs and grapes, bread dough, pit corn, fresh earth, onion and elderberry was the ancient Egyptian cure for diarrhoea.
  • The first surgical performance was estimated to have been conducted in Egypt in 2750 BC.