If we accord the first place, in this history, to Egyptian Medicine, it is not without a motive. It seems to us to merit this honor, not only because its antiquity is based on monuments, the most authentic, but also because it has been the source whence the Greeks drew the first elements of this science; and in this respect also the Egyptian nation may be justly named, the instructress of the human race. We read in the Bible, that when Jacob died, " Joseph commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm him ; and the physicians embalmed Israel, and forty days were fulfilled for him, for so are fulfilled the days of those that are embalmed." Thus, at the death of the Patriarch Jacob, about 1700 years before the birth of Christ, Egypt possessed men who practiced the art of medicine. This passage, in the writings of Moses, is the most ancient authentic monument that we possess of the Healing Art ; all that is more remote in the history of Egypt, and of other nations, is enveloped in uncertainty and obscurity, at least so far as medicine is concerned.
Nevertheless, it is certain, that before the time of the emigration of the sons of Jacob to Egypt, the arts and sciences had already attained, in that country, a degree of perfection which could only be the result of long experience, that required very many years or rather centuries of observation. The books of the Hebrews, furnish other more valuable information on this subject. We read in them, that when Abraham was constrained by the famine, to quit the land of Canaan, he entered Egypt, where he found an abundance of everything to nourish his household and his flocks. At this epoch, which preceded the death of Jacob 230 years, Egypt rejoiced in a very advanced state of civilization. Agriculture, Geometry, Architecture, Metallurgy, had all then made a remarkable progress. Thebes, the city of a hundred gates, existed as well as some of those gigantic edifices, destined to transmit to posterity, the evidence of the power and wisdom of the Pharaohs (5 Lettres de Champollion jeune, relatives au Musée Egyptien de Turin, p. 25 et suivantes).
But through how many phases must the Egyptian nation have passed, before its intelligence and industry had acquired such a development! How many centuries must have run by, before her men possessed the means of perpetuating the memory of great events and useful inventions! The arts of speaking and writing, these two indispensable instruments for the transmission of ideas, how were they created? By what series of gradual improvements did they arrive at that point of clearness, requisite to produce exactly the image of the thoughts? The most arduous and subtle researches, teach us nothing, or next to nothing on these interesting questions ; the science of Champollion is mute on this point ; the sacred books alone clear up this difficulty, in saying that God taught to man, the names of all animate and inanimate things.
So then, the generations that have bestowed upon the human race the most useful discoveries; have themselves passed away, without leaving any other impression of their passage. Those who undertook, in aftertimes, to collect the records of humanity, in place of transmitting pure and intact, the few documents of which they yet held possession, enveloped them with fiction, which renders the truth more and more uncertain. But it must be said, for their justification, that these first chroniclers had especially in view, the inculcation to man of the principles of sociability, morality, and religion, and that their marvelous, or allegorical recitals attained much more directly the end they aimed at, than if they had stated the naked truth. It is for this reason, doubtless, that instead of seeking, laboriously, the primitive source of the arts and sciences, on the earth, they placed it in the heavens, and that they attributed to their gods, or to men they deified, all great discoveries. On this account, therefore, the cradle of Medicine, as well as all the arts .of first necessity, is surrounded with fables and allegories.
I shall glide slightly over this medical mythology, which, in this day, can neither delude any one, nor furnish any satisfactory light on the state of the science in primitive times, and would constitute nothing more than a display of erudition as sterile as it would be out of place in an elementary work. I shall only say on this subject, what is indispensable to be known, in order not to appear ignorant in the eyes of men who have a smattering of the history of our Art.
Thoth, or Theyt, whom the Greeks name Hermes, and the Latin Mercurius (Mercury), passed, among the Egyptians, as the inventor of all sciences and arts. He has been supposed to be the author of an encyclopedic collection, in which, it is said, was comprised all the wisdom of the ancient priests of the country. But this collection has been lost, at an unknown period, and no writer, who refers to it, speaks of having seen it: all refer to it as traditionary. There are also various statements as to the number of books of which it was composed. Some say there were twenty thousand; others thirty-six thousand; others, on the contrary, reduce the number to forty-two volumes, only. It appears difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile these opinions, so adverse; nevertheless some have attempted so to do ; among others, Galen, Hornius, and Bochard ; but none of their explanations are reliable.
Neither is there a better agreement as to the person of Hermes, nor of the time in which he lived. According to many conjectures, which have about equal claim to truth, this personage was Bacchus, Zoroaster, Osiris, Isis, Serapis, Orus, or Apollo, or Shem the son of Noah. Others think that Hermes was a god, to whom the Egyptian priests dedicated all their scientific productions, by inscribing his name at the head of their writings. Benjamin Constant emits a conjecture, more reasonable if not more true. "In the great religious corporations," says he," the sacerdotal instinct warns them, never to permit any individuality to be manifested. What we have taken for the proper names of the Chaldean and Phoenician writers, was probably only the designation of a class. The word sanchoniaton, signifies, among the Phenicians, a savant, a philosopher, or, in other words, a priest. Many East-Indians have assured the Chevalier Jones, that Buddha was a generic name. In Egypt, all the works on religion and the sciences bore the name of Thoth, or Hermes" (De la Religion. Paris, 1824, 1. 11, p. 120).
M. Houdart, who agrees with this last view, and fortifies it by proofs certainly more numerous than decisive, gives, beside, on the contents of this hermetic encyclopedia, details which are nowhere else found as well deduced. I think I cannot do better than give a textual statement of his remarks. "Finally," says Houdart, " that the reader may judge of the immensity of the knowledge of the savants of ancient Egypt, I place before him the titles of the forty-two volumes of this hermetic collection. The first two contained hymns to the gods, the others, duties of the kings. The four following treated of the order of the wandering stars, of light, and of the rising and setting of the sun and the moon. In ten others was given the key to their hieroglyphics; a description of the Nile, of sacred ornaments, of holy places; and beside these, instructions in astronomy, in cosmography, and the geography and topography of Egypt. Ten other volumes related to the choice of victims, divine worship, religious ceremonies, festivals, public celebrations, etc. A like number of volumes, which were called Sacred, were consecrated to the laws, to the gods, and to all the discipline of the priesthood. Finally, the last six treated of Medicine. We leave to the reader the care of deducing all the results of such an encyclopedia. What we wish particularly to refer to, is, that the last six volumes, which related to Medicine, embraced a body of doctrines, complete and well arranged. The first treated of anatomy, the second of diseases, the third of instruments, the fourth of remedies, the fifth of diseases of the eye, and the last of diseases of women. It must be agreed that this distribution was very methodic. In the first place there was given, a description of the human body, showing, by this, that it was necessary to commence with knowledge of the system on which it was necessary to operate; then they pass to the study of diseases; thence to medicines and instruments employed in their treatment. As the affections of the eye, and the diseases of women are very frequent, and as they demand particular attention, they were studied separately. This is certainly a complete and well-arranged body of medical matter ("Etudes Historiques et Antique sur la Vie et la Doctrine d'Hippocrate, et sur l'état de la Médecine avant lui," par M. Houdart. Paris, 1840, p. 135).
No one will contest the excellency of this plan of Medical studies that M. Houdart has just traced, but what is most doubtful, is, that a plan so well arranged can be referred to a period so early in human society. Without attempting to discuss this point, I will simply remark, that the Hippocratic collection posterior to this, by a thousand years, according to the supposed date of the encyclopedia, does not present as complete and as methodic a system. Further, how can we admit that the Egyptian priests would attach a very high value to anatomical studies, when it is known that the school at Cos, initiated in the doctrines of these priests, and much more advanced than they, in all branches of medical science, possessed, nevertheless, but very vague notions on the conformation of the human body, except in what relates to osteology. Everything justifies us in believing that the plan of medical education which is attributed to the priests of Egypt, is the work of some writer of the Alexandrian school ; for it was about the epoch of the foundation of that city, that anatomical researches and medical philosophy began to flourish.
Nevertheless, the description that M. Houdart gives of the progressive march of the sciences in Egypt, and in particular of the method followed by the priests in the practice of medicine, is both interesting and instructive. On this account, I continue to quote his remarks, but, at the sam3 time, expressing my doubts of the exaggerated appreciation of the results which this writer conceives are derived from the Egyptian school. "It is not necessary to suppose," He adds, "that Medicine reached, suddenly, in Egypt, this degree of perfection. As was common among other people of high antiquity, they commenced, in the first place, as we learn from Strabo, by exposing the sick in public, so that any of those who passed by, that had been similarly attacked and cured, might give their advice for the benefit of the sufferers (According to Herodotus and Strabo, the same usage appears to have existed among the Babylonians and Lusitanians). At a later period, this plan was much better calculated to accelerate the progress of the art; for all who were cured of disease were required to go and make an inscription in the temples, of the symptoms of their disease, and the curative agents which had been beneficial to them, The temples of Canopus and Vulcan, at Memphis, became the principal depots of these registers, and they were kept with the same care as the archives of the nation. For a long time, everyone had the privilege of going to consult them, and of choosing for his sickness, or that of his neighbors, the medicaments of which experience had confirmed the value. This method was very good, notwithstanding its inconveniences, to advance science, because it rested entirely upon observation. In this way, must have been collected a prodigious quantity of facts, from which might be deduced correct principles in the practice of Medicine, and this, indeed, was brought about. The priests, who were charged with the study of these observations, did not hesitate to seize upon the exclusive practice of the Art, and when they had collected a great mass of facts, they formed a Medical Code, the fruit of the experience of ages, which is called by Diodorus, of Sicily, the Sacred Book, from the directions of which they were never permitted to vary. It was, doubtless, this code, which was afterward attributed to Hermes, that made up the collection spoken of by Clement, of Alexandria, and which the Pastophores followed in the practice of Medicine If, in following the rules there laid down, they could not save their patients, they were not held responsible ; but, according to Diodorus, of Sicily, they were punished with death if, after departing from them the result did not justify a
their course. Unquestionably this was an atrocious law, and must have arrested all ulterior progress in the Healing Art. Nevertheless, it should be stated, that it was not made before the correctness of those principles had been well established. Diodorus is decisive on this subject; he says, positively, that the design of a law, so severe, was, that a practice confirmed by long experience, and supported by the authority of the greatest masters of the Art, was preferable to the limited experience of each particular physician (Etudes Historiques et Critiques, etc., p. 136.).
I have already indicated my objections to M. Houdart, for exaggerating so much the progress of Egyptian Medicine in these remote times, and I shall not add to what I have said, but one simple question. 1 will ask of this erudite, who attempts to justify, like Diodorus, this foolish and iniquitous Egyptian law, what judgment he would give, to- day, upon the Sovereign or Senate who would attempt to re-establish and execute a similar one, under the pretext that our medical code is the fruit of the experience of ages, and that the solidity of the principles which serve as its base, is sufficiently established '? Doubtless, he could not sufficiently curse such a senseless tyranny, so contrary to the progress of science and the best interests of the diseased. Finally, I will ask, how is it that he has conceived so high an idea of the Egyptian doctrine, which rests upon some vague and doubtful traditions, while he blames, with excessive severity, the Hippocratic doctrine, of which there remains to us irrefutable monuments which have excited the admiration of the greatest masters ?
It is usually supposed that the practice of embalming, which goes back to an immemorial period, as already indicated, was well calculated to familiarize the Egyptian priests of that early day with anatomical researches. But Sprengel has justly observed that this process was too rude to have contributed very much to the advancement of the science. He adds, that according to Herodotus, the people had a horror of these proceedings, and that they pursued and threw stones at the parachute who made the incision, through which were introduced into the corpse the ingredients destined to dry and preserve it. This subaltern operator was obliged to fly immediately after he had done his work, in order not to become the victim of the animadversion of his assistants. When Pliny assures us that the kings of Egypt permitted the opening of the corpse, for the purpose of discovering the causes of diseases, he always means the Ptolomies, under whose reign anatomy was carried to a very high degree of perfection (C. Spreugel, " Histoire de la Medicine, traduction de M. Jourdan," t. I, p. 60 et suiv. See " l'Histoire de l'Anatomie," par Th. Lauth. Strasbourg, 1815, liv. 1).
According to the authors I have just named, there were three sorts of embalmment, namely: that of the first class, reserved for men of quality and wealth, which cost one talent; that of the second class, which was adopted by families of moderate means, which cost about twenty mines; lastly, a mode of embalmment for the poor, which consisted simply in washing the body and macerating it for seventy days in lye. In the process of embalming the first and middle classes, the brain was removed by an opening through the nasal fossae, and an incision was made on the left side of the abdomen, through which the intestines were withdrawn, and spices and more or less costly aromatics were introduced; after which, the body was washed, as above stated, then spread over with gum, and wrapped in bandages of linen.
The Egyptian nation was divided, from the earliest times, into six orders, as follows: the king and princes, priests, soldiers, shepherds, laborers, and lastly, artisans. The order of the priesthood was most respected and the most powerful; it was the depot of the laws, science, and religion. The sovereign, before taking the reins of government in his hands, was affiliated to the sacerdotal order, and initiated into its mysteries. The care of the priests to conceal their doctrines is well known, and that they might do it more effectually, and transmit them to their successors, they employed a peculiar language and mode of writing, termed hieroglyphical or sacred, which differed essentially from the common language of the people. While the vulgar prostrated themselves before rude images, emblems of the attributes of the divinity, or of the wonders of creation, the learned classes, which included medical men, recognized an invisible and eternal Sprit, the Supreme Governor of the universe.
French version : Médecine des Égyptiens
from History of medicine by P.V Renouard.