Thursday, March 19, 2015

Doctors and Medicine

One of history’s first doctors, Hesire, was the “Chief of Tooth-Doctors and Doctors” at the court of the Old Kingdom pharaoh Djoser. Hesire examined a boy who suffered from what sounds like diabetes. Hesire prescribed a special diet of fruits, grains, and honey. Although the diet helped his young patient, it could not cure his problem.

Egyptian doctors are highly regarded throughout the Middle East for their skill and knowledge. The best even travel abroad, with the pharaoh’s permission, to treat foreign rulers at their request.

A student doctor commonly learns his profession from other physicians in the family, probably his father, but he might also be sent to one of the few medical schools attached to the great temples. Most doctors work as general practitioners within their community, but some specialize in one part of the body. Others work in temples, or as army surgeons.

Compiling medical knowledge
Over the centuries, the medical profession has accumulated many texts of instruction. There are books about every part of the body, books for surgeons, dentists, and veterinarians, as well as descriptions of various common diseases and books of recipes for medicines.

Egyptian doctors understand a lot about how the human body works, of the nervous system and the effects of injury to the spine. Much knowledge about the body and its organs comes through mummifying the dead, which has made it clear that the heart is the most important organ because it pumps blood around the body. So doctors know that a patient’s pulse “speaks the messages of the heart.”

Remedies for ailments fall into three broad categories: treatment with medicines, surgery, and “incubation” (see below).There are medicines to be taken by mouth, some to be applied to the skin, and others to be inhaled.

Regularly used herbs include opium, myrrh, frankincense, fennel, cassia, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe, linseed and castor oil. Garlic and onions are regularly eaten to give strength, and raw garlic is given to asthmatics. Fresh, mashed garlic, mixed with water and vinegar, makes a healthy mouthwash and relieves sore throats and toothache, though it does smell strongly!

Leaves from many plants such as willow, sycamore, acacia, and mint are used in poultices for binding wounds.Tannic acid derived from acacia nuts is applied to burns, and castor oil, combined with figs and dates, is used as a laxative.

Doctors sometimes use surgery to treat patients, and open skulls to relieve pressure on the brain. Before operating, the patient is given an alcoholic drink to deaden any pain. Since Egyptians attach great importance to ritual cleanliness, the surgeon and his assistants wash themselves thoroughly and purify their instruments in fire before the operation.

Magic, prayers, and dreams
Physical medicines such as herbs and surgery are mostly expected to help with the pain, while magic is believed to cure the patient. Some herbal remedies have ingredients such as mice and beetles, which drive out the demons causing the illness. Prayers are a vital part of any treatment, aided by the wearing of charms and amulets to ward off evil.

In serious cases, the doctor will advise a visit to a temple associated with one of the gods of healing—Thoth, Sekhmet, Isis, or Imhotep—where priests are trained as doctors. Here, the patient spends the night close to the god’s inner sanctuary. Such a stay is called “incubation,” during which the patient might be healed by the god, or dream of the god and receive instructions for treatment.

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