Weird History

10 Bizarre Facts About What Surgery Was Like In Ancient Egypt

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

    Ancient Egyptians May Have Started The Practice Of Male Circumcision

    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
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    Dental Surgery Was Painful And Ineffective

    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

    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

    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.