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The Practice of Medicine and Dentistry in Ancient Egypt

by Alfred Jones

Ancient Egyptian inscription detailing medical instruments, including bone saws, suction cups, knives and scalpels, retractors, scales, lances, chisels and dental tools.

It was not uncommon to discover that people living during pharaonic times were treated by those skilled in sophisticated medical science. There is evidence that those in skilled in medicine and dentistry in ancient Egypt practiced what today is considered to be highly skilled techniques. Mummies were discovered that had received neuro-surgery for the treatment of tumors and aneurysms. Evidence of orthodontia, the use of gold to fill teeth and dental hygiene were seen to exist in ancient Egypt.

The Egyptians paid great attention to their health and it is believed that life expectancy was longer in Egypt than in any other part of the known world. Doctors were so well trained that people from other countries came to Egypt to study and it was considered to be a great advantage once they returned to their homeland and let it be known that they had received their medical training in Egypt.

Medicine was highly specialized. There were those that specialized in treatment of the eyes, others specialized in internal medicine, others dealt with complaints of the head and some 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.

For the most part, both dentists and medical doctors were paid by the national treasury, but 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.

Standards were laid down and there were rules and regulations about the practice of 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 the occult. There were rules for the utilization of other than scientific methods and certainly where the element of frustration appeared, both family members and the doctors themselves would turn to what ever old wives tale might have been prevalent in a certain region, for example.

There was universal belief in preventative medicine and it was believed 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 that have come down to us today. 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. Both Greek and Roman writers referred to the practice of medicine in Egypt and particular emphasis was given to the use of natural substances that had therapeutic properties.

Post mortems were performed on patients and the lessons learned as a result gave the ancient doctors an ever increasing knowledge about both life and death. To this day, we are not completely sure of the ramifications of mummification. They did possess the knowledge that the removal of those internal organs that might decay would enhance the mummification process and preserve the mummy almost indefinitely. Present day psychoanalysists would be interested to know that the Egyptians placed great store 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 was used to cause the patient to sleep during a surgical procedure.

The Egyptians were given to taking baths seriously. Both cold and hot water was used, minerals were placed in the water and an overall attitude regarding cleanliness was observed in paintings that have come down to us today. It is doubtful that they had any concept of micro organisms, 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.

It is of interest to note that many of the practices of the Egyptians regarding both medicine and dentistry are still in evidence today. It is often difficult for us to appreciate completely the scholarship of these people in both the arts and sciences, in technology and in an overall philosophy of life that enabled them to experience a cultural continuum for many thousands of years.

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