The working classes can be divided into three categories: the intellectual literates (from whom came physicians, architects and landed noblemen), the Egyptian craftsmen (including the artists and sculptors) and the peasant farmers and labourers.
The Egyptian temples of Heliopolis, Sais and Memphis were centres of learning from earliest times. Here physicians were trained. Such titles as ‘Chief of the Dental Physicians’ (Hesi-Ra), ‘Palace Eye Expert, Physician of the Belly, One Comprehending Internal Fluids and Guardian of the Anus’ (Iri), or ‘Chief Oculist of the Royal Court’ (Wah-Dwa), support Herodotus’ observation that there were specialists in ancient Egypt for the different branches of medicine. The Ministry of Health, if one might call it such, comprised the ‘Chief of Physicians’ and their assistants (non-specialists) under an ‘Inspector of Physicians’. Such titles as ‘The Chief Physician of Upper Egypt’ (Ibi), or ‘Greatest Physician of Upper and Lower Egypt’ indicate that within the medical profession there was a liaison between distant provinces and the central court.
The Egyptian medical papyri, of which there are over a score, are clear indication of the advances made in the medical field from very early times. Though the texts date to the Middle and New Kingdoms, it has been established that these were copies (sometimes third and fourth hand) of very early texts. Archaic grammar and obsolete words point to their antiquity as well as certain references to the Old Kingdom. The Berlin medical papyrus, for example, known as the Mother and Child Papyrus, bears a statement that it was found under a statue near Giza in the time of the pharaoh Den (1st dynasty). It further states that after his death it was brought to the pharaoh Sened (2nd dynasty), ‘because of its excellence’.
The text was signed by ‘The Scribe of Sacred Writings, the Chief of the Excellent Physicians, Neferhotep, who prepared the book’, (ie he copied it from an original manuscript). The London medical papyrus bears a statement that it was ‘brought as a marvel to the Majesty of King Khufu’. And the Edwin Smith surgical papyrus, believed to be the earliest, might have been a copy of the original manuscript of Djer (second pharaoh of the 1st dynasty whose books on anatomy survived, according to Manetho, until Greco/Roman times). It dealt with forty-eight carefully arranged surgical cases of wounds and fractures, detailing a dispassionate examination of the patient and prescribing cures. No ailment was ascribed to the activity of a demonaic power and there was very little magic; the ancient Egyptian people were not witch doctors who gave incantations but physicians who prescribed healing remedies and operations. Though some of the cures might be considered rather fanciful extract of the hair of a black calf to prevent graying others became famous for their virtue in later times. This was a society where educated men sought methods to prolong life. Beliefs in the potency of spells or exorcisms undoubtedly existed, especially among the lower classes, along with the belief in magical charms and talismans, but magico-religious medicine, as such, only flourished in later times.
Medical and surgical papyri in ancient Egypt were undoubtedly compiled at different periods, each adding to the limited knowledge of a predecessor. By the 6th dynasty there appears to have been a firmly established medical tradition. For when the vizier Weshptah, architect/friend of the pharaoh Neferirkere, suffered a stroke in the king’s presence, he showed great solicitude for his stricken friend and ordered his officials to consult medical documents for a remedy to help the vizier regain consciousness.
Mural reliefs provide further evidence of medical practices. Sesa’s tomb at Saqqara (5th dynasty) is known as the Doctor’s Tomb in view of the reliefs showing the manipulation of joints. Egyptian Ankhmahor’s tomb (6th dynasty) is known as the Physician’s Tomb and shows an operation on a man’s toe and the circumcision of a youth the latter was practised on boys between six and twelve years of age. Finally, we know from mummified bodies that dental surgery was used from early times. Some have teeth extracted, and a 4th-dynasty mummy of a man shows two holes, apparently drilled, beneath a right molar of the lower jaw for draining an abscess. Wooden splints and linen bandages encase broken limbs in pre-dynastic tombs and, indeed, the advances made in mummification indicate a sound knowledge of anatomy.
The highly specialised profession of mummification was not perfected until the Egyptian New Kingdom. It was performed by priests, as against medicine which was practised by scholars. In the early dynastic period when the bodies of the dead were placed in tombs they were found to perish more quickly than when protected by the warm sand. Since the lifelike appearance was believed essential for a continued existence in the afterlife, artificial means of preservation had to be sought. Early efforts to accomplish this (in the 2nd dynasty) included modelling in clay the features of the face, the genitals and breasts with nipples. This gave an uncannily lifelike appearance. Subsequently, linen strips dipped in resinous material were moulded on to the shrunken body, carefully wrapping individual fingers, etc, the body cavities being filled with linen. Later the intestines and vital organs were removed, wrapped in linen strips and immersed in a natron solution. This development led to the preservation of the viscera in four canopic jars placed in a box (the earliest were those of Khufu’s mother).
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