The Ebers Papyrus

The Ebers Papyrus is written in hieratic Egyptian writing and represents the most extensive and best-preserved record of ancient Egyptian medicine known. An ancient Egyptian medical papyrus of herbal knowledge combining herbal remedies with magic spells. Among the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt. 

The scroll contains some 700 magical formulas and folk remedies. It contains many incantations meant to turn away disease-causing demons and there is also evidence of a long tradition of empiricism.

The Ebers Papyrus
The Ebers Papyrus

The papyrus contains a “treatise on the heart”. It notes that the heart is the centre of the blood supply, with vessels attached for every member of the body.

The Egyptians seem to have known little about the kidneys and made the heart the meeting point of a number of vessels which carried all the fluids of the body—blood, tears, urine and semen.

Mental disorders are detailed in a chapter of the papyrus called the Book of Hearts. Disorders such as depression and dementia are covered. The descriptions of these disorders suggest that Egyptians conceived of mental and physical diseases in much the same way.

The papyrus contains chapters on contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy and other gynecological matters, intestinal disease and parasites, eye and skin problems, dentistry and the surgical treatment of abscesses and tumors, bone-setting, and burns.

Medicine in Ancient Egypt, from “The History of Medicine”, 1952
Medicine in Ancient Egypt, from “The History of Medicine”, 1952. Robert Thom (American, 1915-1979)

An Egyptian physician of the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550-1292 BC), clothed in clean white linen and a wig, as became the dignity of his status, is confronted with a patient having symptoms of lockjaw (described in an ancient scroll now known as the Edwin Smith papyrus). With sure, sympathetic hands, the physician treats the patient, who is supported by a “brick chair.” Directions for treatment appear on the scroll held by his assistant. Specially trained priests observe prescribed magico-religious rites. Egyptian medicine occupied a dominant position in the world of the ancients for 2500 years.

The “channel theory” was prevalent at the time of writing of the Ebers papyrus; it suggested that unimpeded flow of bodily fluids is a prerequisite for good health.

It may be considered a precursor of ancient Greek humeral pathology and the subsequently established theory of the four humors, providing a historical connection between Ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and medieval medicine.

It dates to the New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, around 1550 BC. Now in the University Library, Leipzig.