The Medical Tradition of Alexandria

A Look at the Ancient History of Alexandria

The Medical Tradition of a Great City

Imhotep2“For in that land (Egypt) the fruitful earth bears drugs in plenty, some good and some dangerous; and there every man is a physician and acquainted with such lore beyond all mankind.” (Homer, 8th century BC) “… As for Isis, the Egyptians say that she was the discoverer of many health giving drugs and was greatly versed in the science of healing;…In proof of this, as they say, they advance not legends, as the Greeks do, but manifests facts; for practically the entire inhabited world is their witness, in that it eagerly contributes to the honours of Isis because she manifests herself in healings.” (Diodorus of Sycily, 1st century BC)

Clement of Alexandria describes the procession of the priests holding the 42 books of knowledge attributed to Thoth/Hermes, the books containing the hymns to the gods, the hymns to the king, 4 books of astronomy, 10 books relating to the ceremonies of worship, 10 books concerning the gods and the education of the priests; 36 books which were learnt by the priests and 6 books contained treatises on medicine covering anatomy, medicine, surgery, ophthalmology, gynaecology, and therapeutics. The fact that these books were known in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD reflects the rich background of Egyptian knowledge on which the scientific tradition of Alexandria grew up during the Ptolemaic period. One of the glories of ancient Egypt was medicine.

Two important papyri on ancient Egyptian medicine discovered c.1863 AD at Luxor are the Edwin Smith papyrus and the Ebers papyrus; both go back to c. 1550 BC. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus was published by J.H. Breasted (Chicago 1930) it is believed that its original source goes back to 3000 BC. The papyrus, describing 48 types of injury and disease, indicates awareness of the pulse, its relation to the heart, and possibly the movement of blood. It is the earliest known reference to the heart and circulation. The Ebers Papyrus contains 110 pages and is the best preserved of the medical papyri of ancient Egypt. Both papyri give a clear idea of the development of rational medical thinking in ancient Egypt. Early Greek writers like Homer (8th century BC) ascribe the invention of the medical art to the Egyptians. Egyptian physicians established a high ethical code that passed down to us in the Hippocratic Oath. Textual parallels between the Hippocratic medicine and some Egyptian medical papyri have been established. According to J.B. de C.M. Saunders (The Transitions from Ancient Egyptian to Greek Medicine): “Of much greater importance to us is the recognition that many of the statements on pregnancy to be found in the ‘Hippocratic Collection’ and entitled ‘On Diseases of Women’ and ‘On Sterility’ are directly derived from Egyptian sources. One of the most extraordinary examples is the almost word-for-word correspondence which exists between a passage in the Hippocratic work ‘On Sterility’ and one found in both Papyrus Carlsberg VIII and papyrus Kuhn…” According to Herodotus (5th century BC) each doctor in Egypt was “… responsible for the treatment of only one disease… some specializing in diseases of the eyes, others of the head, others of the teeth, others of the stomach, and so on…”. The renown of the Egyptian medicine in the 6th century BC was such that it was often the custom to choose the chief physician of the imperial court in Persia from Egypt.

Medicine at Alexandria

A papyrus of the 2nd century BC shows that the Egyptian physicians taught medicine at Alexandria. Egyptian embalmers were at work at Alexandria and they were known for their excellent knowledge of anatomy. The Egyptian medical tradition that dissection of the body is an essential prerequisite for practice passed from Alexandria to Rome. The physician Rufus of Ephesus (2nd century AD) who visited Egypt wrote that the Egyptian physicians named the sutures of the skull although they understood Greek poorly.

hippocrates_smallPlinus the Younger (Letters, 10.6), a member of the Roman nobility, wrote to the Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) for “… making Harpocras my physician a citizen of Rome… I was informed by those who are better skilled in these affairs than I pretend to be, that as he is an Egyptian (from Memphis), I ought first to have obtained for him the freedom of Alexandria, before he was made free of Rome. I confess, indeed, as I was ignorant of any difference in this case between Egyptians and other aliens… it is an ignorance I cannot regret, since it affords me an opportunity of receiving from you a double obligation in favour of the same person”.

And so Harpocras was made citizen of Alexandria and Rome. Note that the Egyptians did not have the right enjoyed by other aliens to become citizens of Rome; they did not even have this right in the cities of Egypt!

Eudemus of Alexandria (240 BCE)

He was an anatomist who studied the nervous system, human osteology, female sex organs, and experimented in embryological studies.

galen_smallGalen (2nd century AD) is the best example of what the excellence of the Egyptian medical tradition of Alexandria can produce. He studied medicine in Alexandria and left many works including his books on anatomy that were originally fifteen in number. He has preserved for us many aspects of the Egyptian medical tradition. According to C.M. Saunders: “…The Egyptian opinion on the superfluities and their putrefaction was absorbed by the Greeks and modified to form an integral part of almost all their later theories.

Even Galen in his elaboration of the humeral doctrine… used the concept to explain the fevers”.

Palladius (Lausiac History, 4th century AD) mentions his encounter in Alexandria with Saint Isidore the Physician “… a wonderful man, distinguished in every respect, both as regards character and knowledge… hospitaller of the Church of Alexandria”, and with “… the most holy Macarius, the priest and superintendent of the hospital for cripples… the hospital had women on the first floor and men on the ground floor”. Egyptian scientists and physicians were active in the 6th century AD, like Sergius and Harun the Priest who was the chief physician at Alexandria and editor-in-chief of a periodical medical publication. When the Arabs invaded Egypt in 639 AD, a school of medicine was still active at Alexandria where the Syriac language was used, and indication that many students from the East-Mediterranean countries where studying medicine at Alexandria until the 7th century.

Finally it is worth to mention that the Egyptian pharmacopoeia based on herbal medicine was used by all the people of the Antiquity, the middle Ages until the 18th century, and is being rediscovered in modern times.

Published in Watani International newspapers 18 August 2002