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THE oldest medical records which the modern world possesses are those of
Egypt, of whose wonderful old civilisation so much of absorbing interest is
being revealed to-day through the labours of archaeologists. Like India,
ancient Egypt had an extensive knowledge of astronomy, the arts, sciences, and
medicine. She named the planets, whose number has become the symbol of mystic
power, the sacred number Seven, and arranged the calendar in the form in
which Caesar carried it to the West. * Thoth, the scribe of the gods and type
of divine intelligence, who invented writing and letters, who measured time
and was the god of right and truth, cut upon stone pillars the first medical
precepts, and these were afterwards transcribed on papyrus and collected into
a number of sacred books. Thoth had many points of resemblance with the Greek
Hermes, and the mystic writings are called the Hermetic books (inspired or
compiled by Thoth,Hermes). Isis (Mother Earth) and Osiris (The Day or Light,
who " suffered a cruel death at the hands of his brother Set the god of
Darkness"), the best known of the Egyptian deities, were regarded as having
invented agriculture and the medical arts. Horus, the sun, who typified the
conquest of light over darkness, or good over evil, was the son of Isis and
Osiris, and learned medicine from his mother, as well as the gift of prophecy.
The sacred books were forty-two in number, of which six dealt with medical
subjects. Amelia B. Edwards, the Egyptologist, says:" Works on medicine
abounded in Egypt from theremotest times, and the great medical library of
Memphis, which was of immemorial antiquity, was yet in existence in the second
century of our era, when Galen visited the valley of the Nile. The Egyptians
seem, indeed, to have especially prided themselves on their skill as
physicians, andthe art of healing was held in such high esteem that even kings
made it their study. Ateta, third king of the first dynasty, is the reputed
author of a treatise on anatomy. He also covered himself with glory by the
invention of an infallible hair- wash, which, like a dutiful son, he is said
to have prepared especially for the use of hismother." The famous papyrus now
in the museum at Leipsic, and believed to be one of the
Hermetic books, is described as follows by Miss Edwards :No less than five
medical papyri have come down to our time, the finest being the celebrated
Ebers papyrus, bought at Thebes by Dr. Ebers in 1874. The papyrus contains one
hundred and ten pages, each page consisting of about twenty-two lines of
bold hieratic writing. It may be described as an Encyclopedia of Medicine as
known and practised by the Egyptians of the eighteenth dynasty, and it
contains prescriptions for all kinds of diseases some borrowed from Syrian
medical lore, and some of such great antiquity that they are ascribed to
the mythologic ages, when the gods yet reigned personally upon earth. Among
others we are given the receipt for an application whereby Osiris cured Ra
of the headache.
Von Klein says: " The exact date of the writing of this papyrus has not yet
been established. . . The calendar which is on the outside of the papyrus
refers to the eighteenth dynasty, in the sixteenth century B.C." The contents
of the papyrus vary in age, from between 1552 to 4688 B.C. Many of the
diseases known to modern science are carefully classified and their symptoms
minutely described. Over seven hundred sub-stances from the mineral,
vegetable, and animal kingdoms are given as drugs, covering every know
physiological action, and are made up into decoctions, infusions, injections,
pills, tablets, troches, capsules, powders, potions, and inhalations, and
into lotions, ointments, plasters, etc. These compounded prescriptions, as
also the allusions in the books of Moses to apothecaries, give evidence that a
distinct class of apothecaries existed among the ancient Egyptians. The
Hebrews,during their stay in Egypt, learned Egyptian medicine, and the Old

Testament is full of medical allusions. An interesting relic of Egyptian

medicine is the medicine chest of the wife of Pharaoh, Mentuhotep, 2500 B.C.
It contains six vases of alabaster and serpentine, dried remnants of drugs,
two spoons, a piece of linen cloth, and some roots, enclosed in a basket of
straw-work. It was found in theQueen's tomb.
Houdart and other writers account in the following way for the origin of the
medical books of ancient Egypt. It is supposed that there, as in other ancient
countries, it was the custom in remote times to lay the sick in the street in
order that they might benefit by the advice of the passers-by. Those who by
experience had learned some useful remedy stopped and gave the patients advice
and recipes for treatment. In Babylon there was even a law compelling them to
do this. (It has been observed that such a law would be
unnecessary to-day.) These recipes, with an account of the symptoms, were
collected and kept by the priests in the temples, where for many ages every
one was free to go to consult them and to select his own treatment. In this
way a vast number of facts were collected, which little by little acquired a
sacred character and were regarded as infallible. Berdoe says 1 : " The art of
medicine in ancient Egypt consisted of two branches, the higher, which was the
theurgic part, and the lower, which was the art of the physician proper. The
theurgic class devoted themselves to magic, counteracting charms by prayers,
and to the interpretation of the dreams of the sick who had sought aid in the
temples. The inferior class were practitioners who simply used natural means
in their profession." As these old records show, they brought medicine to a
high plane of learning and culture.
(It is possible that the word "magic" does not to-day convey an impression in
accordance with the actual state of ancient medicine. The Egyptians practised
hypnotism and knew how to control the mind and imagination. Houdart quotes
Bacon assaying that "the honourable significance once given to the word
' magic ' as 'research' or 'knowledge' should be given to it again.")

They were called Pastophori, but Ebers says that the Pastophori had many
duties, and were not all physicians, though all physicians might be said to be
Pastophori, as it was essential that they should belong to the priestly class.
It is not clear who actually gave the orders for the practical
treatment of the patient, the priest magician or the priest physician, or
who actually carried them out.
To deviate from the recipes of the sacred books was regarded as so dangerous
that the physician who did so, and whose patient died, was himself punished
with death. If, however, the patient died under treatment given according to
the sacred books, the physician was not held responsible. This rigid
conservatism at which Egyptian medicine ultimately arrived, by preventing the
progress of further knowledge, and by forbidding experiment, stifled thought
and ambition, and eventually brought about its downfall.
Beside the actual treatment of disease the ancient Egyptians had established
public hygiene and sanitation upon a remarkably thorough scale. Their civil
laws contained so much about the care of the health that those who knew and
obeyed all were called doctors. They appear to have had a corps of sanitary
inspectors or health officers, for Houdart quotes an old writer who said
that " it has been proved that in time of pestilence the police were as useful
as physicians," and his

opinion was that one reason for limiting the province of the doctors in the
matter of treatment was that if they were allowed to experiment with new
remedies they might nullify or interfere with the work of the sanitary
officers. The ancient Egyptians, at least those of the higher classes, were
exceedingly cleanly, bathing several times a day, keeping their faces shaved,
and they also, for reasons of cleanliness and hygiene, practised circumcision.
They were well acquainted with the uses and varieties of enemata, ointments,
liniments, and massage. They used opium, castor oil, and many other drugs used
to-day; practised surgery, did excellent dental work, and bandaged
beautifully. Their belief in immortality led them to embalm their dead, and
this practice shows their great knowledge of preservative drugs and a certain
amount of anatomy. On the other hand this very sacredness of the human frame
made a thorough study of anatomy,such as must underlie a progressive
There is no mention to be found of nurses, yet it seems unreasonable to
suppose that a nation which had brought medicine, pharmacy, and sanitation to
so orderly and systematic a state should not have had a nursing class; or that
women should not have taken an active share in good works, more especially
when we consider what is known of the general humanitarianism of the Egyptians
and the favourable position of their women. Budge says that the social
position of women was always much higher in Egypt than in other Eastern
countries; "the mother or 'lady of the house' enjoyed a po sition of authority
and importance rarely met with among other nations." Of their humanity Brugsch
writes: "Laws which ordered them to pray to the gods, honour the dead, give
bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, reveal to us
one of the finest qualities of the old Egyptian, pity towards
Nor have modern researches yet disclosed anything definite of hospitals in
ancient Egypt, although it is conjectured that the temples of Saturn may have
been resorted to by the sick. That there were priestesses or "temple women" is
certain ; what their duties were is not so clear. Caton says: "There is reason
to believe that institutions closely related to infirmaries or hospi- tals
existed in Egypt many centuries earlier than the Hieron of Epidauros, but no
structural trace of such building has been discovered." If there
were indeed hospitals there must also have been nurses, and we may feel
reasonably sure that their duties were well defined and circumscribed. As to
what must have happened to them if they disobeyed the physician, we can form
an estimate by what happened to him if he disobeyed the sacred books.

A History of Nursing by M.AdelaideNutting,R.N,LaviniaL.Dock,R.N.
History of All Nations, edited by John Henry Wright,
LL.D., Philadelphia and New York, 1903, vol. i., by Ferd-inand justi, p. 115.
Revised version of the Bible, Append., p. 19.
Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers, by Amelia B. Edwards, p. 218. Harper &
Bros., New York, 1892.
Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers, by Amelia B. Edwards, p. 219. Harper &
Bros., New York, 1892.
The Medical Features of the Papyrus Ebers, Carl H. von Klein, A.M., M.D.,
Bulletin Amer. Acad, of Medicine, Feb., 1906, pp. 314 et seq.
Klein quotes from Exodus xxx., 25-35; xxxvii., 29; Eccles. x.,
I; Chron. xvi., 14.
Ibid., p. 320.
Histoire de la Medicine Grecque depuis Esculape jusqu'a Hippocrate, M. S.
Houdart, Paris, 1856, pp. 71, 73.
Op. cit., p. 61.
Houdart, op. cit., p. 81.
Houdart, op. cit., p. 75.
A History of Egypt, by E. A. Wallis Budge, M.A., Litt.D., D.Lit. Kegan Paul,
Oxford, 1902, vol. ii., p. 20.
Egypt under the Pharaohs, by Heinrich Brugsch Bey, London, and New York, 1891,
p. 10.
The Temple and Ritual of Asklepios, by Richard Caton, M.D., F.R.C.P., C. J.
Clay & Sons, London, 1900.