Imhotep

Imhotep – The Real Father of Medicine

The Greek physician Hippocrates is known as the father of modern medicine, but a Black Egyptian, Imhotep was practicing medicine and writing on the subject 2,200 years before Hippocrates. Were Ancient Egyptians Black?

In ancient Egypt, there was a ‘Medicine God’ known as Imhotep. Imhotep was a real person that lived in service to a pharaoh during the third dynasty. Imhotep was a polymath (a genius in multiple subjects). He excelled as a mathematician, priest, a writer, a doctor, and he founded the Egyptian version of the studies of architecture and astronomy. He is credited with building the first pyramid created entirely with stone by human hands – the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, near Memphis.

Egyptians, not Greeks were true fathers of medicine

The research team from the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at The University of Manchester discovered the evidence in medical papyri written in 1,500BC – 1,000 years before Hippocrates was born. Imhotep writings are generally considered the source that the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text, which contains almost 100 anatomical terms and describes 48 injuries and their treatment. The text may have been a military field manual and dates to c. 1600 BCE, long after Imhotep's time, but is thought to be a copy of his earlier work.

Edwin Smith Papyrus - believed written by Imhotep 1,000 years before Hippocrates was born
Edwin Smith Papyrus – believed written 1,000 years before Hippocrates was born and based on previous writings of Imhotep

Scientists examining documents dating back 3,500 years say they have found proof that the origins of modern medicine lie in ancient Egypt and not with Hippocrates and the Greeks.

"Classical scholars have always considered the ancient Greeks, particularly Hippocrates, as being the fathers of medicine but the KNH research team findings suggest that the ancient Egyptians were practicing a credible form of pharmacy and medicine much earlier," said Dr. Jackie Campbell.

"When KNH compared the ancient remedies against modern pharmaceutical protocols and standards, they found the prescriptions in the ancient documents not only compared with pharmaceutical preparations of today but that many of the remedies had therapeutic merit."

The medical documents, which were first discovered in the mid-19th century, showed that ancient Egyptian physicians treated wounds with honey, resins, and metals known to be antimicrobial.

Imhotep is also touted as being the only ascended mortal in the Pharaonic pantheon— an advisor to kings, builder of pyramids, and paragon of knowledge who rose to become the god of healing and science. For 3000 years he was worshiped as a god in Greece and Rome. Early Christians worshiped him as the "Prince of Peace."

Ancient Statue of Imhotep, Louvre Museum
Ancient Statue of Imhotep, Louvre Museum

Imhotep, in ancient Egyptian, is translated to mean “the voice (or mouth) of Im”; however, there is no record of a god in Egypt called ‘Im.’ Many are familiar with the “I AM”: EXO 3:14 

“And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.”

Unlike the Egyptian god, Thoth who is not generous with his knowledge, Imhotep insisted that knowledge was only useful if it was applied for the good of all. His most important doctrine is that knowledge, science, and magic should be used to help humanity. Magic and the use of herbalism were the first forms of ‘medicine’ though Imhotep practiced surgery and cured people from over 200 diseases – ailments as varied as tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout and arthritis. He practiced dentistry and could look at the hair, nails, skin, and tongue to make diagnoses.

Imhotep was practicing medicine and writing on the subject 2,200 years before Hippocrates, the so-called Father of Modern Medicine was born. Imhotep is generally considered the author of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text, which contains almost 100 anatomical terms and describes 48 injuries and their treatment. The text may have been a military field manual and dates to c. 1600 BCE, long after Imhotep's time, but is thought to be a copy of his earlier work.

The team also discovered prescriptions for laxatives of castor oil and colocynth and bulk laxatives of figs and bran. Other references show that colic was treated with hyoscyamus, which is still used today, and that cumin and coriander were used as intestinal carminatives.

Further evidence showed that musculoskeletal disorders were treated with rubefacients to stimulate blood flow and poultices to warm and soothe. They used celery and saffron for rheumatism, which are currently topics of pharmaceutical research, and pomegranate was used to eradicate tapeworms, a remedy that remained in clinical use until 50 years ago.

"Many of the ancient remedies we discovered survived into the 20th century and, indeed, some remain in use today, albeit that the active component is now produced synthetically," said Dr. Campbell.

"Other ingredients endure and acacia is still used in cough remedies while aloes forms a basis to soothe and heal skin conditions."

Fellow researcher Dr. Ryan Metcalfe is now developing genetic techniques to investigate the medicinal plants of ancient Egypt. He has designed his research to determine which modern species the ancient botanical samples are most related to.

"This may allow us to determine a likely point of origin for the plant while providing additional evidence for the trade routes, purposeful cultivation, trade centers or places of treatment," said Dr. Metcalfe.

"The work is inextricably linked to state-of-the-art chemical analyses used by Metcalfe's colleague Judith Seath, who specializes in the essential oils and resins used by the ancient Egyptians."

Professor Rosalie David, Director of the KNH Centre, said: "These results are very significant and show that the ancient Egyptians were practicing a credible form of pharmacy long before the Greeks.

Were Ancient Egyptians Black?

European colonialism has distorted or destroyed the history and historical accounts of Africa. In order to justify the enslavement of African people, a false narrative was promoted that Africa was a backward land, full of barbaric primitive people with no history. It would have been difficult to justify slavery if the world knew about the great empires and accomplishments of various groups of Africa people.

Last Judgement of Hunefer, 1275 b.c.e., papyrus, Thebes, Egypt (British Museum)
Last Judgement of Hunefer, 1275 b.c.e., papyrus, Thebes, Egypt (British Museum)

Growing up, I didn't even realize Egypt was on the continent of Africa, it was never mentioned. The ancient Egyptians always painted themselves with dark skin and they literally left images of themselves carved in stone with what are today considered black facial features.

The Ramsess II Statues at Main Entrance to Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt
The Ramses II Statues at Main Entrance to Abu Simbel Temple in Egypt

Hollywood through propaganda has contributed to the distortion of black history, such as depicting Egyptians as white or at least anything other than black. Charleston Heston portrayed Moses and Elizebeth Taylor portrayed Cleopatra.

The only black images that were ever presented in media concerning Egypt were those of slaves. Unfortunately, even the greatness of Imhotep has been distorted and fictionalized as an evil character in the movies "The Mummy" in 1932 play by Boris Karloff and in the 1999 version played by Arnold Vosloo. A clip of Vosloo's role as Imhotep is below.

Eye Witness Accounts of Sphinx 

Count Constantin de Volney, a French nobleman, philosopher, historian, orientalist, and politician, embarked on a journey to the East in late 1782 and reached Ottoman Egypt where he spent nearly seven months. Constantin de Volney was troubled much by the institution of slavery. His expressed opinion that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans much departed from the typical European view of the late eighteenth century, but it gave many people cause for reflection.

During his visit to Egypt, he expressed amazement that the Egyptians – whose civilization was greatly admired in Europe – were not White!

"All the Egyptians," wrote de Volney, "have a bloated face, puffed-up eyes, flat nose, thick lips – in a word, the true face of the mulatto. I was tempted to attribute it to the climate, but when I visited the Sphinx, its appearance gave me the key to the riddle.

On seeing that head, typically Negro in all its features, I remembered the remarkable passage where Herodotus says:

'As for me, I judge the Colchians to be a colony of the Egyptians because, like them, they are black with woolly hair…

"When I visited the Sphinx, I could not help thinking that the figure of that monster furnished the true solution to the enigma (of how the modern Egyptians came to have their 'mulatto' appearance) "In other words, the ancient Egyptians were true Negroes of the same type as all native-born Africans. That being so, we can see how their blood, mixed for several centuries with that of the Greeks and Romans, must have lost the intensity of its original color, while retaining nonetheless the imprint of its original mold.

"Just think," de Volney declared incredulously, "that this race of Black men, today our slave and the object of our scorn, is the very race to which we owe our arts, sciences, and even the use of speech! Just imagine, finally, that it is in the midst of people who call themselves the greatest friends of liberty and humanity that one has approved the most barbarous slavery, and questioned whether Black men have the same kind of intelligence as whites!

"In other words the ancient Egyptians were true Negroes of the same stock as all the autochthonous peoples of Africa and from the datum one sees how their race, after some centuries of mixing with the blood of Romans and Greeks, must have lost the full blackness of its original color but retained the impress of its original mould."

Sixteen years after Count de Volney visit, another Frenchman, Dominique-Vivant Denon gave a similar description of the Sphinx.

Dominique-Vivant Denon was a diplomat and artist who Napoleon invited to join the Egyptian expedition in 1798. Denon was the first European artist to discover and draw the temples and ruins at Thebes, Esna, Edfu, and Philae. Many of us have heard the disputed tale that a cannonball fired by Napoleon’s soldiers hit the nose of the Sphinx and caused it to break off. Many believe that Napoleon shot off the nose and lips of the Sphinx because he did not like its black features. Denon made the following statement about the Sphinx in the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure

"Though its proportions are colossal, the outline is pure and graceful; the expression of the head is mild, gracious, and tranquil; the character is African, but the mouth, and lips of which are thick, has a softness and delicacy of execution truly admirable; it seems real life and flesh." 

Denon's drawing of the Sphinx show it with a broad nose and thick lips, clearly African features.
Denon's drawing of the Sphinx show it with a broad nose and thick lips, clearly depict African features.

Racial identity based on skin color is a relatively modern concept created during the slave trade. Prior to the 16th century, people did not view themselves in the context of black verse white, so the ancient Egyptians or any other group of ancient people would have viewed themselves from the perspective of being black or white. 

It is estimated that the average person did not travel more than 30 miles from home during their lifetime, so it's hard to imagine that the ancient Egyptian people were a mixture of European and African people. People assume that the current population is representative of what the population looked like during ancient times. The United States is a predominately white country, however, if you were to arrive on this continent 500 years ago, you wouldn't have found any white people. They came later, decimated the indigenous native population, took over their land and claimed it as their own. 


Part of the Court.rchp.com 2017 Black History Month Series

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