A Textbook of Community Medicine/History of Medicine

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All human societies have medical beliefs that provide explanations for, and responses to birth, death, and disease. Throughout the world, illness has often been attributed to witchcraft, demons, averse astral influence, or the will of the gods, ideas that retain some power, with faith healing and shrines still common, although the rise of scientific medicine in the past two centuries has altered or replaced many historic health practices.

Ancient Egyptian Medicine[edit]

The Ancient Egyptians, like the Ancient Greeks and Romans, have provided modern historians with a great deal of knowledge and evidence about their attitude towards medicine and the medical knowledge that they had. This evidence has come from the numerous papyrus found in archaeological searches.

Like prehistoric man, some of the beliefs of the Egyptians were based on myths and legend. However, their knowledge was also based on an increasing knowledge of the human anatomy and plain common sense.

In Ancient Egypt, the treatment of illnesses was no longer carried out only by magicians and medicine men.Archaeological digs have also found evidence of men titled physicians.

Physicians lived even earlier in Ancient Egypt. Imphotep was the physician to King Zozer and lived in about 2600 BC. Imphotep was considered so important that he was, after his death, was worshipped as a god of healing.

Almost all of our knowledge about Ancient Egyptian medical knowledge comes from the discoveries of papyrus documents. The very dry atmosphere in Egypt has meant that many of these documents have been very well preserved despite their age. Numerous papyrus documents have come from the era 1900 BC to 1500 BC. It is from these documents that we know that the Ancient Egyptians still believed that the supernatural caused some disease.

When there was no obvious reason for an illness, many Ancient Egypt doctors and priests believed that disease was caused by spiritual beings. When no-one could explain why someone had a disease, spells and magical potions were used to drive out the spirits.The Ancient Egyptians also had a god who would frighten away evil spirits – Bes.

Despite this use of remedies that come from a lack of knowledge, the Ancient Egyptians also developed their knowledge as a result of education. Ancient papyrus inform us that the Ancient Egyptians were discovering things about how the human body worked and they knew that the heart, pulse rates, blood and air were important to the workings of the human body. A heart that beat feebly told doctors that the patient had problems.The document actually gives names to organs such as the spleen, the heart, the anus, the lungs etc., so they must have known that these exist. One papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, has a detailed description of the brain in it so this organ was also well researched by the standards of the time. It is probable that this knowledge came as a result of the practice the Ancient Egyptians had of embalming dead bodies.