Surgery and Medical instruments in ancient Egypt

Oct 2, 2010

Surgery and Medical instruments in ancient Egypt


The Edwin Smith Papyrus shows the suturing of non-infected wounds with a needle and thread. Raw meat was applied on the first day, subsequently replaced by dressing of astringent herbs, honey and butter or bread. Raw meat is known to be an efficient way to prevent bleeding. Honey is a potent hygroscopic material (absorbs water) and stimulates the secretion of white blood cells, the natural first body defense mechanism. The application of sour or moldy bread was practiced in European medicine until the Renaissance. In AD 1928, Alexander Fleming extracted Penicillin from moulds, and 17 years later was awarded the Nobel Prize of Medicine.

At least 39 mummies with cancer have been identified. Cancer of the uterus has been described in the Ebers papyrus

“Another for one in whom there is eating on her uterus in whose vagina ulcers have appeared”.

Breast cancer was also described, but was non-curable.

“If thou examinst a man having bulging tumors on his breast, and if thou puttst thy hand upon his breast upon these tumors, and thou findst them very cool, there being no fever at all when thy hand touches him, they have no granulation, they form no fluid, they do not generate secretions of fluid, and they are bulging to thy hand. Thou shouldst say concerning him: One having bulging tumors. An ailment with which I will not contend”.

Two sculptured slabs from the 1st dynasty (3150 – 2925 BC) dating to kings Aha and Djer (2nd and 3rd kings) show a seated person directing a pointed instrument to the throat of another who was kneeling. Some Egyptologists believe it was a tracheotomy (opening the airways to maintain breathing) procedure.

The surgical treatment of abscesses or cysts was described in the Ebers Papyrus.

“Instructions for a swelling of pus …. A disease that I treat with knife-treatment. If anything remains in pocket, it recurs”.

Surgeons today are aware that complete excision of a swelling capsule is mandatory to avoid its recurrence.

Piles and rectal prolapse were treated by medication, suppositories, laxatives and enema. For burns, a mixture of milk of a woman who has borne a male child, gum, and, ram’s hair was applied. Urethral strictures were dilated using reeds. This was the earliest non-surgical intervention ever applied in history. In modern medicine, the first intervention was reported in the AD 1880’s by catgut balloons.

Mild antiseptics, as frankincense, date-wine, turpentine and acacia gum were used. Hot fire-drill was employed in cauterization.

Cairo museum has a collection of surgical instruments, including scalpels, scissors, copper needles, forceps, spoons, lancets, hooks, probes and pincers. A collection of 37 instruments is engraved on a wall in the temple of Kom-Ombo (2nd century BC), which was one of the houses of life. The Ebers Papyrus states

“thou shalt perform an operation for it, the same being split with a knife and sized with a …(? forceps)”.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus contains a list of instruments, including lint, swabs, bandage, adhesive plaster (x-formed), support, surgical stitches and cauterization.

Ancient Egypt Medical Instruments

Medical instruments.

Pain alleviation to allow surgery was known to ancient Egyptian physicians. Patients were sedated by opiates. Local anesthesia was also known, where water was mixed with vinegar over Memphite stone, resulting in the formation of carbon dioxide with its known analgesic effect. This is not too far from modern cryo-analgesia.

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