A day in the life of an ancient Egyptian doctor – Elizabeth Cox

A day in the life of an ancient Egyptian doctor – Elizabeth Cox


It’s another sweltering morning
in Memphis, Egypt. As the sunlight brightens the Nile,
Peseshet checks her supplies. Honey, garlic, cumin, acacia leaves, cedar oil. She’s well stocked with the essentials
she needs to treat her patients. Peseshet is a swnw, or a doctor. In order to become one, she had to train as a scribe and study the medical papyri stored
at the Per Ankh, the House of Life. Now, she teaches her own students there. Before teaching,
Peseshet has a patient to see. One of the workers at the temple
construction site has injured his arm. When Peseshet arrives, the laborer’s arm is clearly broken, and worse, the fracture is a sed,
with multiple bone fragments. Peseshet binds and immobilizes the injury. Her next stop is the House of Life. On her way, a woman intercepts
Peseshet in the street. The woman’s son
has been stung by a scorpion. Peseshet has seen many similar stings
and knows exactly what to do. She must say an incantation
to cast the poison out. She begins to recite the spell, invoking Serqet, patron of physicians
and goddess of venomous creatures. Peseshet recites the spell
as if she is Serqet. This commanding approach
has the greatest chance at success. After she utters the last line, she tries to cut the poison out
with a knife for good measure. Peseshet packs up to leave,
but the woman has another question. She wants to find out if she is pregnant. Peseshet explains
her fail-safe pregnancy test: plant two seeds: one barley, one emmer. Then, urinate on the seeds every day. If the plants grow, she’s pregnant. A barley seedling predicts a baby boy, while emmer foretells a girl. Peseshet also recommends a prayer
to Hathor, goddess of fertility. When Peseshet finally arrives
at the House of Life, she runs into the doctor-priest Isesi. She greets Isesi politely, but she thinks
priests are very full of themselves. She doesn’t envy Isesi’s role
as neru pehut, which directly translates to herdsman
of the anus to the royal family, or, guardian of the royal anus. Inside, the House of Life is bustling
as usual with scribes, priests, doctors, and students. Papyri containing all kinds of records,
not just medical information, are stored here. Peseshet’s son Akhethetep is hard
at work copying documents as part of his training
to become a scribe. He’s a particularly promising student, but he was admitted to study
because Peseshet is a scribe, as was her father before her. Without family in the profession, it’s very difficult for boys,
and impossible for girls, to pursue this education. Peseshet oversees all the female
swnws and swnws-in-training in Memphis. The men have their own overseer, as the male doctors
won’t answer to a woman. Today, Peseshet teaches anatomy. She quizzes her students on the metu, the body’s vessels that transport blood, air, urine, and even bad spirits. Peseshet is preparing to leave when a pale, thin woman accosts her
at the door and begs to be examined. The woman has a huge,
sore lump under her arm. Peseshet probes the growth
and finds it cool to the touch and hard like an unripe hemat fruit. She has read about ailments
like this, but never seen one. For this tumor there is no treatment,
medicine or spell. All the texts give the same advice:
do nothing. After delivering the bad news,
Peseshet goes outside. She lingers on the steps
of the House of Life, admiring the city at dusk. In spite of all her hard work, there will always be patients
she can’t help, like the woman with the tumor. They linger with her,
but Peseshet has no time to dwell. In a few short weeks, the Nile’s annual flooding will begin, bringing life to the soil for
the next year’s harvest and a whole new crop of patients.

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