Ancient Egyptian medicine offers care clues

Effective snake bite treatment was one of the highlights of the forgotten skills of ancient Egyptian medicine, according to a new study.

Medical care in Ancient Egypt is the subject of a new book showing that many treatments, some fairly effective, were available for the common hazard, a snake bite.

Professor Rosalie David and Dr Roger Forshaw of the University of Manchester, UK, investigated the subject and found that ancient Egyptian doctors had a number of impressive skills.

As well as snake bite treatments from the Brooklyn Papyrus of 450 BC, the book Medicine and Healing Practices in Ancient Egypt covers approaches to old age, attitudes to deformity and disability, and treatment of trauma.

The authors explain that medical care in ancient Egypt was universally available throughout society, offered at temples, workplaces and town settings.

Spells and prayers to various gods feature in the book, as well as some painful but effective treatments including wound incision and bandaging for scorpion and spider bites.

The Ancient Egyptians often used natron, a mineral salt found in dried lake beds that can reduce swelling by osmosis and act as a type of antiseptic.

It is mentioned in the Brooklyn Papyrus, alongside herbal treatments and the common use of onion which repelled snakes due to its sulfonic acid content.

“The Egyptian health care system was advanced and successful, not least for devising innovative ways to treat snake bites and save lives,” says Professor David.

“Its achievements, although widely praised in antiquity, are often not fully recognised today.

“This ancient Egyptian medicine was even evident in medieval and later practices in Europe, and some aspects still survive today in modern ‘Western’ medicine,” she adds.

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