October 1, 2022
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ColumnsMind and Matter

Recognizing Imhotep, the world’s first doctor

When most people consider historical scientists and physicians, they think of white European figures. Not many stop and reflect on the innovations of Africans, Asians or Native Americans. The erasure of scientists of color is so embedded in society that even Imhotep, the first historically recorded physician, is most popularly recognized as the mystic antagonist in the Hollywood film “The Mummy.” Yet to get a full picture of scientific history, we must consider Imhotep, our world’s first recorded medical doctor.

Imhotep was born in approximately 27th century BCE and lived during the rule of Egypt’s Third Dynasty King Djoser the Great. During his life, he became the chancellor of the king of Egypt, administrator of the Great Palace, chief sculptor, chief carpenter, high priest of Heliopolis and chief magician of the Pharaoh’s Court. Although no record exists of him being a practicing physician in the modern sense, historical scholars agree that the chief magician also served as the nation’s chief physician and healer.

Through the versatility of his mind, Imhotep became respected as a philosopher, politician, scientist and an artist. Evidence even suggests he was the principal architect of the Pyramid of Djoser, the step pyramid at Sakkara. His reputation as a genius and as someone with magical healing capabilities are indicators that he was also a physician of great skill. There is strong evidence that Imhotep was the primary author of the seminal Ebers papyrus, a detailed analysis of hundreds of diseases, their etiologic causes and their treatments. The papyrus contains chapters on mental illness, contraception, dentistry, intestinal diseases, parasites, bone-setting, burns and treatment of tumors. Furthermore, Imhotep is considered to be the first person who recognized and wrote about the relationship between the heartbeat and the circulation of blood, an accomplishment more popularly attributed to William Harvey, an English physician who wrote about it nearly 4,500 years after Imhotep’s discovery.

Imhotep, the remarkable African physician whose skills were unrivaled in his time, eventually became known as the Egyptian god of medicine. Sir William Osler, founding member of Johns Hopkins Hospital, described Imhotep as “the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity.” When taking into account Imhotep’s philosophical and scientific accomplishments, one can’t help but wonder why we don’t learn about him when discussing other historical scientific figures such as Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle.