The Egyptian Origins of Cancer Treatment
Our oldest description of cancer (although the word cancer was not used) was discovered in ancient Egypt. It dates back to about 1600 BC It is found in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, a text based on an even older Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery. This ancient text may date back to 3000 BC and the teachings of the Egyptian father of medicine, Imhotep. It describes eight cases of tumors of the breast that were treated – yes, TREATED. How? By cauterization with a tool called the fire drill. Yes, that’s what they called it.
There’s even evidence that they were able to tell the difference between malignant and benign tumors. Inscriptions suggest that surface tumors were surgically removed in a similar manner as they are removed today.
What about cancer itself? It looks like our earliest records of cancer give us some idea of the era where cancer truly became a problem for our ancestors. A recent study by Michael Zimmerman (no relation) revealed that cancer doesn’t go much further back than the time when a ruling class came to power in ancient Egypt:
The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialisation.
In other words, when Egypt became a big city, that’s when cancer emerged. Scientist Rosalie David added, “There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.”
Indeed, the ancient Egyptian upper class ate differently from the mostly plant-based diets of the common people. They liked meat. Those with wealth also began living sedentary lifestyles (not working hard, mostly sitting around). Naturally, other health problems emerged at the same time. It’s so ironic that the same health problems we experience can be traced back to the excesses of our ancestors in the Nile Valley, beginning over 6,000 years ago.
What, besides cancer, do you think they also experienced? Right, diabetes. Our earliest known record of diabetes is from 1552 B.C., where the disease is recorded on a 3rd Dynasty Egyptian papyrus by the physician Hesy-Ra, who mentions frequent urination as a symptom. As a side note, Hesy-Ra was the first recorded doctor. He was known as “Chief of Dentists and Physicians” for King Djoser.
What else? They dealt with heart disease as well. Atherosclerosis (or “clogged arteries”) typically occurred among the upper-class, who ate a diet high in salt and fatty meats. In a study of 16 mummies (only upper-class people were mummified), nine had blockage. The most ancient mummy to have suffered from heart disease was identified as Lady Rai, a nursemaid to Queen Amrose Nefertari. She died around 1530 B.C. while she was in her 30s.
You probably noticed a LOT of these “famous firsts” from Egypt. There’s a reason for that. Around 800 BC, Greek poet Homer remarked in the Odyssey: “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind” and “the Egyptians were skilled in medicine more than any other art.”
Of course, Homer wasn’t familiar with many other Black civilizations. But his statements say a lot when you consider the fact that he WAS well acquainted with ancient Greece and its European neighbors. In other words, he could look at all kinds of white folks everywhere and still say those Black folks on the Nile were the best.
Another Greek, the historian Herodotus, visited Egypt around 440 BC and observed:
Of the Egyptians themselves, those who dwell in the part of Egypt which is sown for crops practise memory more than any other men and are the most learned in history by far of all those of whom I have had experience: and their manner of life is as follows: For three successive days in each month they purge, hunting after health with emetics and clysters, and they think that all the diseases which exist are produced in men by the food on which they live: for the Egyptians are from other causes also the most healthy of all men next after the Libyan.[i]
Praising their diet and exceptional public health system (they had universal healthcare before white folks ever considered it), Herodotus added, “the practice of medicine is so specialized among them that each physician is a healer of one disease and no more; and the whole country is full of physicians.”
Following the reports of Homer, Herodotus, and Pliny the Elder (among others), Greeks who would later be credited with the foundations of the medical industry began visiting Egypt to study at the temple of Amenhotep and other institutions.
These included Hippocrates (the “father of medicine”), Herophilos, Erasistratus and Galen, all of whom acknowledged the contribution of ancient Egyptian medicine to Greek medicine. Later European writers, however, were not so forthcoming, and managed to credit the ancient Greek students while forgetting about who had taught them.
As we noted earlier in this book, we know a great deal about the accomplishment of the Egyptians because of their proximity to the Greeks, and the record-keeping traditions of both culture. But other indigenous cultures were often just as advanced (in some cases, before ancient Egypt emerged), but we have very few – if any – records of their practices. In Part One, we shared some of that history, based on evidence from the archaeological record and traditional accounts from indigenous people.
The African Background to Medical Science: Essays on African History, Science & Civilizations by Charles S. Finch III
The Physicians of Pharaonic Egypt by Paul Ghalioungui and Verlan Phillip Von Zabern
The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World by Guido Majno
The Edwin Smith Medical Papyrus translated by James Breasted
The House of Life (Per Ankh): Magic and Medical Science in Ancient Egypt by Paul Ghalioungui
[i] Herodotus, (2007). An Account of Egypt, trans. G. C. Macaulay. Project Gutenberg. www.gutenberg.org/files/2131/2131-h/2131-h.htm