Medicine among Primitive Peoples
The first evidence of surgery is skulls from the stone age. Some adults had holes cut in their skulls. At least sometimes people survived the ‘operation’ because the bone grew back. We do not know the purpose of the ‘operation’. Perhaps it was performed on people with head injuries to release pressure on the brain.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists studied primitive societies. Among them, treatment for injury and sickness was a mixture of common sense and magic. People knew, of course, that falls cause broken bones, and fire cause burns. Animal bites or human weapons cause wounds. Primitive people had simple treatments for these things e.g. Indigenous Australians covered broken arms in clay, which hardened in the hot sun. Cuts were covered with fat or clay and bound up with animal skins or bark.
However primitive people had no idea what caused illness. They assumed it was caused by evil spirits or magic performed by an enemy. The ‘cure’ was magic to drive out the evil spirit or break the enemy’s spell.
In about 3000 BC the curtain rises on Egyptian civilization. In a civilized society, some people did specialized jobs. One of these was the doctor. The first doctor known to history was Sekhet-eanach who ‘healed the pharaoh’s nostrils’. (We do not know what was wrong with them).
Much of Egyptian medicine still relied on magic. However, at least they could keep written records of which treatments worked and which did not. In this way, medicine could advance. The earliest known medical book is the Ebers Papyrus, which was written about 1500 BC.
Egyptian doctors used a huge range of drugs obtained from herbs and minerals. They were drunk with wine or beer or sometimes mixed with dough to form a ‘pill’. Egyptian doctors also used ointments for wounds and they treated chest complaints by getting the patient to inhale steam.
The Egyptians believed that the human body was full of passages that acted like irrigation canals. The Egyptians knew that irrigation canals sometimes become blocked. They reasoned that if the passages in a human body became blocked it might cause illness. To open them Egyptians used laxatives and induced vomiting.
However, the Egyptians still believed that spells would help the sick and they carried amulets to ward off disease. Nevertheless, they were beginning to seek a physical cause for illness.
The Egyptians did have some knowledge of anatomy from making mummies. To embalm a dead body they first removed the principal organs, which would otherwise rot. However Egyptian surgery was limited to such things as treating wounds and broken bones and dealing with boils and abscesses.
The Egyptians used clamps, sutures, and cauterization. They had surgical instruments like probes, saws, forceps, scalpels, and scissors. They also knew that honey helped to prevent wounds from becoming infected. (It is a natural antiseptic). They also dressed wounds with willow bark, which has the same effect.
The Egyptians were clean people. They washed daily and changed their clothes regularly, which must have helped their health.There were some women doctors in Ancient Egypt.