How the world’s first “physician” became a demigod
The world’s first enduring civilization may have arisen in Egypt; some scholars suggest that the fertile Nile Valley had been settled as early as 10,000 BC. But it wasn’t until the advent of the Old Kingdom, about 2600 BC, that modern historians can begin to form real figures from the dim outlines of a past shrouded in mystery and magic.
Among these real figures was a man named Imhotep—born a commoner, made a minister. He flourished as a physician and architect, died under mysterious circumstances, and evolved into an emissary between the lands of the living and dead. Eventually, he was considered a god and worshipped long after the Greeks began to dominate the world stage.
Yet the question remains: did he ever exist at all?
Here’s what we know: the Old Kingdom was the first golden era of Egyptian civilization. Times were peaceful and food was plentiful. In times of plenty, art and architecture are allowed to flourish. And in Ancient Egypt, art and architecture had a singular purpose—to venerate the dead.
So, its around this time that a king named Djoser commissioned a grand temple to be dedicated to his memory, to ease his passage from this world to the next, and to stand as an emblem of his godhood. Remember, this was a time when magic ruled people’s lives.
It’s generally accepted that Imhotep was a commoner, but he was also uncommonly intelligent. As Djoser’s chief advisor, he designed and oversaw construction of the first Egyptian stone-built monument to death and the afterlife, the step pyramid at Saqqara.
He may also have been the first man to understand that disease and injury can and should be dealt with in a scientific manner, by ferreting out causes and searching for natural cures.
In other words, he may have been the world’s first doctor.
There is a scroll called the “Edwin Smith papyrus,” named after a famous Egyptologist. Purchased in 1862 by Smith in an underground market, it wasn’t translated until 1930. But when it was entirely decoded, our understanding of the history of medicine changed.
The scroll consists of 48 case histories of trauma, from cuts to broken bones to deep head wounds, from the treatable to the fatal. Each case history includes methods of diagnosis, treatment considerations, and subsequent anti-infective therapy. Particularly noteworthy is its emphasis on injuries to the brain, and the apparent understanding of the brain’s importance to cognition, sensation, and movement. In fact, it represents the first time the word “brain” has been found in ancient literature.
The scroll references Imhotep as a physician, a new breed of healer who searches for causation and cure in the natural world.
The problem? The scroll dates from around 1600 BC, a full 1000 years after Imhotep likely died. As with the writings of Hippocrates, students inscribed the text from one scroll to the next over the ensuing millennium. This is not unusual, and source texts—or more likely, fragments—help scholars fill in the historical blanks.
However, all attempts to find source texts have failed. Everything written by and about Imhotep during his lifetime seems to have disappeared. There is no scroll, no body, and no tomb—nothing stands as testament to his existence except a few chance mentions and an enduring legacy.
The end of Imhotep’s life is shrouded in mystery. Some believe that a mythic cult of personality had sprung up around him and he began to be regarded as a demigod throughout Memphis, then the seat of Egyptian culture. He was petitioned as an emissary between the living and the dead—ironic treatment for a man so seemingly driven by scientific reasoning. And at the height of the mania, with statues erected in his honor and deification about to commence, he disappeared.
His legend grew in the following 2 millennia. No longer an emissary, he was now a full-fledged god, and was even regarded as such by the Greeks, who equated him with their god of medicine, Asclepius.
His tomb became the place of miracles and the site of pilgrimages for the ill and afflicted. Yet, to this day, no one knows where it is. Despite its status as the Egyptian Holy Grail, not a single person has yet come close to finding it. Until someone does, the real story of the “world’s first physician” will remain where it has always been—shrouded in mystery.
- Dunn J. Imhotep, doctor, architect, high priest, scribe and vizier to King Djoser. TourEgypt.com. October 24, 2011. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/imhotep.htm.
- Imhotep (2667 BC – 2648 BC). BBC Web site. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/imhotep.shtml.
- Imhotep (c. 2667-2648 BCE). Science Museum’s history of medicine Web site. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/people/imhotep.aspx.
- Imhotep. NNDB.com. http://www.nndb.com/people/227/000174702.