In the childhood of the world Egypt was the pioneer country as regards the evolution of medicine. To her belongs the high honour of
having raised the healing art to a level far exceeding that hitherto attained. Both in diagnosis and in therapeutics astonishing progress was
made. Even pathology attracted widespread interest ; the Edwin Smith Papyrus suggests that dissection of the human body was systematically practised in ancient times.
The medical schools of Egypt, closely associated with her priestcraft and temples, were famous far and wide, her specialist physicians being summoned to attend royal and other personages in distant 1ands.l For a physician to have been educated in Egypt was in itself a passport to success. This high reputation is acknowledged by Homer when he says : ‘In Egypt the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind .’
Most of the ancient races of the world have found a place in their theology for one or more deities of medicine to whom were attributed
miraculous powers in restoring sick and apparently dying persons to health. Such deities were worshipped amongst the Persians, Hindus, Chinese, Babylonians, Aztecs, and Phoenicians inter alios; many of them had shrines which were resorted to by suffering men and women, whether afflicted mentally or physically.
The ancient Egyptians also had numerous deities to whom were attributed the invention of various arts and sciences, including medicine. Amongst those most generally referred to in this connexion are the falcon-headed sun-god Re, the wonderworking Isis with her son the sun-god Horus, Ptah, the ancient God of Memphis: and the ibisheaded moon-god Thoth, the reputed author of religious and scientific works including treatises of medicine. Less important medical members of the Egyptian pantheon were Khnum with rams’horns and the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, who were worshipped as the tutelary deities of procreation and childbirth. All these deities, however, were probably mere mythical creations of the imagination and lack the fascination associated with a human personality.
Of outstanding interest, therefore, is the famous Imhotep, who first appears on the stage of history as the vizier-physician of King Zoser, and who so impressed his fellow countrymen with his skill in healing disease that he was eventually raised first to the status of medical demigod and eventually to that of full deity of medicine.
Unfortunately we cannot trace his history from the beginning; all that can be done is to collect and arrange such biographical details as have survived. Happily recent research allows of a more coherent account than was formerly possible. Imhotep, the earliest physician of whom historical details have survived, lived in the reign of a famous Egyptian king named Zoser, a Pharaoh of the IIIrd Dynasty (ca. 2980-
2900 B. C.).
Unhappily we know nothing of his early history. No glimpse is allowed us of his birthplace or childhood; there is no record of his appearance in the flesh, nor is anything told us of the steps by which he reached the highest post open to an official in Egypt. Descended from a distinguished architect named Kanofer, and from a mother named Khreduonkh, Imhotep appears to have received a liberal education, so far as such was possible in those far-off days. At any rate he grew up an erudite, versatile man, a sort of Aristotelian genius, who took all knowledge for his province.
He was distinguished for his vast learning as well as for some striking achievements, and in the course of ages became generally recognized as the Egyptian god of medicine. His name Imhotep signifies ‘he who cometh in peace ‘, a most appropriate name for a healer of the sick and one which must have brought solace and courage to many an anxious patient.
It will be convenient to divide his career into three periods and to consider in order:
- IMHOTEP AS CONTEMPORARY OF KING ZOSER (ca. 2980 B. C.)
- IMHOTEP AS A MEDICAL DEMIGOD (ca. 2850 B. C.-Reign of Mycerinus)
- IMHOTEP AS FULL DEITY OF MEDICINE (ca. 525 B. C.-Persian Period)
IMHOTEP devoted his life to various activities which may be grouped as follows:
A. Grand Vizier.
C. Chief Lector Priest or Kheri-heb.
D. Sage and Scribe.