ancient history 10 Bizarre Facts About What Surgery Was Like In Ancient Egypt

Harrison Tenpas
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The ancient Egyptians were one of the first great civilizations on the planet. A foundationally well-structured society, the Egyptians had a sophisticated agricultural economy, a highly organized government, and proper law enforcement which created a sense of stability in their everyday lives that nurtured research and documentation. Through trial and error, the ancient Egyptians were able to discover medical treatments that were far ahead of their time - many of which are still employed today. 

With the use of some of the world's oldest surgical tools, ancient Egyptian medical practices were able to treat a wide variety of topical ailments, putting them ahead of the curve among other civilizations of their time. This list explores what surgery and medicine were like in ancient Egypt, of which there are various records due to the customs of meticulous documentation. 

Ancient Egyptians May Have Started The Practice Of Male Circumcision


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Photo: Lasse Jensen/via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5

It is speculated by some that the ancient Egyptians may have invented the act of male circumcision. While the jury is out on the definitive origins of the practice, it is known that the Egyptians shared their knowledge of circumcision with other cultures, as the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the mid-5th century BCE, "They are the only people in the world - they at least, and such as have learnt the practice from them - who use circumcision... The Egyptians practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely.”

The ancient Egyptians appear to have performed circumcision in the male's pre-adolescent phase and not at infancy, leading some to believe that it was a ritual to commemorate a transition from boyhood to manhood. The practice does not appear to have denoted social class or status, as not all kings (preserved through mummification) appear to be circumcised.

An important note: anesthesia did not exist at the time. 

Dental Surgery Was Painful And Ineffective


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Photo: Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

The diet of the average ancient Egyptian was not exactly conducive to a great set of teeth. The tools used to grind food often left behind traces of sand and stone, which are naturally abrasive, and this often meant tooth loss at an early age. The ancient Egyptians did employ some remedies for dental ailments, but they were somewhat bizarre and painful - for example, according to the Ebers Papyrus, the treatment for a toothache was rubbing a powdered mixture of onion, cumin, and incense on a tooth. 

There are cases where the ancient Egyptians filled cavities with a mix of resin and a greenish mineral that contained copper, and drilled into jawbones to drain abscesses of fluid, but curiously, the process of tooth extraction (often lifesaving in cases of infection) was almost never used. 

Surgeries May Have Been Performed By The First Female Doctors In Recorded History


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Photo:  Rémih/Wikimedia Commons

While they were ahead of the curve in technology, ancient Egypt also had its progressive achievements in civil rights. Being the first at many milestones of medicine, it should come as little surprise that the first recorded instance of a female doctor occurred in ancient Egypt. 

Merit-Ptah (c. 2700 BCE) is the first known woman physician in history. She likely held the title of "Chief Physician," meaning she had the authority to teach, had supervision over male peers, and personally attended to the monarch of that time. 

Egypt Probably Had The First Prosthetics, Evidenced By Wooden Toe


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Photo:  Jon Bodsworth

A culture of firsts, it's very likely that the world's first-ever prosthetics were used in ancient Egypt. A female mummy discovered near Luxor, Egypt - her death dating between 950 to 710 BCE - was found to have a prosthetic toe made from wood and leather. While the idea of a cosmetic replacement for a severed toe is an impressive innovation, researchers at the University of Manchester suggest it may have actually helped the woman walk.

The prosthetic toe showed significant signs of wear, which prompted University researchers to conduct a study that tested the gait of its participants with and without the aid of the replicated digit. What was found was that walking in ancient Egypt in sandals (the common footwear) would have been incredibly difficult without a big toe, and prosthetics - similar to the one found on the Luxor mummy - went a long way to assist the afflicted.

They Fashioned Surgical Instruments That Are Still Used Today


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Photo: Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Egyptian society was one of considerable innovations, including effective surgical tools to aid medical treatment. Primarily crafted from the newly discovered metal of copper, the ancient Egyptians had versions of pincers, forceps, spoons, saws, hooks, and knives - all of which can be found in medical facilities today. They also crafted excellent bandages and had the foresight to infuse them with willow leaves to treat inflammation, a practice that was incredibly ahead of its time.

They Were Knowledgable On The Functions Of Major Organs


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Photo:  Jeff Dahl/via Wikimedia Commons

Though invasive surgery was an extremely rare practice in ancient Egypt, medical practitioners actually had a pretty solid knowledge of the internal organs and how they functioned. The Ebers Papyrus - one of the oldest preserved documents regarding medical practices - illustrates the thoughts on the workings of vital organs at the time. While some of the theories are slightly off, there are some which are impressively spot on. 

Some quotes (adapted to modern language) from the document:

The heart: "From the heart there are vessels to all four limbs, to every part of the body."

The respiratory system: "When we breathe in through our noses, the air enters our hearts and lungs, and then the entire belly."

The liver: "The liver is supplied with liquid and air via four vessels. When they overfill the liver with blood, they cause many diseases."

And, of course, the anus: "The liquid and air that come out of the anus come from four vessels. The anus is also exposed to all the vessels that exist in the arms and legs when they are overflowing with waste."

Post-Mortem Dissection Was Common, But Little Was Learned From It


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Photo:  Biblioteca Museu Víctor Balaguer

The ancient Egyptians are known for their sophisticated process of mummification, which has led to an understanding of how they functioned as a society and how they viewed public health. The mummification procedure is an incredibly invasive one that involves thorough dissection to remove moisture from the body - including the removal of brain tissue through the nostril via a gruesome hook implement - and as such, the priests who performed the sacred act got a very close look at the internal organs of human beings.

Curiously, the knowledge gleaned from mummification was not employed for any medical use. A strong possible explanation for this is that priests and doctors of the time simply did not operate in the same circles, so the communication just wasn't there. It has been regarded as a strange oversight for a civilization that practiced such thorough documentation. 

Procedures Were Performed As Early As 3300 BCE


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Photo:  Lars Larsson/via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Ever the overachievers, the ancient Egyptians have practiced medicine as far back as 3300 BCE. Largely through trial and error, they began treating battle wounds, snake bites, scorpion stings, and other topical ailments, putting them ahead of other civilizations in the same era. Even though the average life expectancy at the time was about 34 years in ancient Egypt, you were much better off in a society that was able to heal burns and set broken bones than ones where such injuries were considered a death sentence.