Western medicine has made some amazing advances in the past century or so. Its ability to market itself and affect so much of the world’s economy is impressive. The number of pharmaceutical and chemical interventions that Western medicine’s drug merchants have introduced to the marketplace and acquired governmental approval for is astounding.
But have methods of treatment and the understanding of the relationship between health and nature really advanced that much over the knowledge of those who practiced medicine in ancient Egypt, India or China?
Emergency trauma medicine in a modern setting can be awe inspiring. Do not dare to compare current practices of heroic emergency room measures with those of 5,000 years ago. However, methods and outcomes of general medicine practiced in 2500 BCE by doctors laboring in the shadows of the pyramids is too enlightened to ignore. And in some cases, one could argue the ancient Egyptians had a better grasp of the holistic nature of health and healing.
We know from mummified human remains dating to at least 2500 BCE that Egyptian doctors knew what they were doing. X-rays confirm broken bones were admirably knitted and patients often lived long and satisfying lives after treatments — even brain surgery — performed without modern technology.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus.
Thanks to what was arguably one history's most significant events - the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone - we are able to decipher ancient Egyptian documents. And thanks to the wisdom of ancient Egyptian doctors, we have records of medical practice written in demotic script on papyrus. One such scroll, over 15 feet long and double-sided, contains detailed descriptions of medical cases and how doctors successfully diagnosed and treated them over 4000 years ago.
One of these medical papyri, and there are several, is believed to be a compilation of the wisdom of genius physician, architect and engineer Imhotep who lived around 2600 BCE. Named the Edwin Smith Papyrus after its first owner, the scroll was acquired by Smith in 1862 from an Egyptian dealer. It is a case history of 48 distinct medical conditions organized in a concise and linear method, similar to a modern medical text.
The Smith Papyrus is respected as a medical document, using scientific methodology familiar to the modern medico. Each of the 48 cases is described with title, method of examination, diagnosis and course of treatment. Many are accompanied by a glossary of terms.
But the Smith Papyrus is remarkable mostly for the respect given it because of the descriptions of surgical interventions, something modern medicine loves. There is another papyrus that is more extensive and more holistic in its medical directives. It is the Ebers Papyrus.
Smoke and mirrors? Why not?
Western medical historians often downplay the importance of the Ebers Papyrus because it contains what they call magic potions and spells. However, many of these so-called potions are commonly used herbal remedies that are enjoying resurgence in Western culture.
The Ebers Papyrus was acquired by Georg Ebers around 1873. It is in the collection of the University of Leipzig. The scroll is over 66 feet in length and dates to about 1500 BCE. Like the Smith Papyrus, it is believed a compilation of previous Egyptian medical texts dating to perhaps 5000 BCE.
The Ebers document is less a surgical textbook and more like an ancient version of a Materia Medica, or overall compendium of medical knowledge. It is precise in its prescription recipes and directives, giving exact ratios of ingredients and dosages. Unfortunately, modern medicine isn’t warm to herbs and holistic remedies of ancient times; so the Ebers document is sometimes dismissed out-of-hand by the unenlightened as 110 pages of medical myth. That is a mistake.
The remedies described in the Ebers have a basis in science and very often involve natural ingredients used effectively today. The Ebers prescription for asthma included an inhaler-like device: “Thou shall fetch seven stones and heat them by fire; thou shall take one thereof and place a little of these remedies on it and cover it with a new vessel whose bottom is perforated, and place a stalk of reed in this hole; thou shall put thy mouth to this stalk so that thou inhalest the [fumes] of it.”
Not all of the asthma-fighting ingredients have been identified, but they do include frankincense and grape. Both are being studied for apparent bronchial dilation qualities.
The Ebers document covers the use of scores of herbal remedies used or sold today to address many medical conditions. It covers many medical procedures and therapies that are in common use today. One is even the description of “sleep temples” where Egyptian doctors would practice healing using the power of suggestion, or an ancient form of hypnosis. Mirrors reflected sunlight deep into the corridors of pyramids and temples where the quietude allowed practitioners and patients to work together effectively. It may be the first description of hypnotherapy, a modality commonly recognized as effective.
Sidebar on Stupidity
I had to laugh a few months ago when I read about an academic who received a sizable grant to transfer images of 5000-year old Egyptian steles (stone tablets) to computer graphics for storage on CD. She said she was glad the information of the ancients would now be stored in a permanent form. Really? Are you kidding? The stone lasted five thousand years. I have 10-year-old CDs that are already unplayable. No way is a CD more robust than rock. Do we really think they’ll last five thousand years? Thank goodness she didn’t get a grant to use punch cards or eight-track tapes!
Just remember, mummy knows best. Be well.