The Origin of Medical Practice
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The Origin of Medical Practice

Chapter III:

Disease An Ancient Curse

   DISEASE is a universal phenomenon as old as man himself. It is a MONUMENTAL FACT of ALL history! Hardly any other facet of human experience has so affected the daily lives of men, past and present!
   Yet, until the Twentieth Century, scientific data on the incidence of disease in history was sketchy. In fact, "we [had]... no knowledge whatever of the early incidence of illness in large sections of the globe. [However], the MAIN CONCLUSION drawn from [recent] paleopathological studies, [is]... that the phenomenon of disease is very old and that disease has always occurred in the same basic forms..." (Sigerist, A History of Medicine, p. 67).
   Discoveries have now provided us with significant information as to the ancient incidence of disease in the major, heavily populated, areas of the world. When analyzed, the conclusion of the above quotation is a startling statement!
   History bears out the fact that the disease "which hath been, it is that which shall be." There is a reason for this, which will be explained later.
   Herodotus stated, Egypt "swarms with medical practitioners." All historians now must concur! It stands to reason there was sufficient cause for such a plethora of physicians. Disease must have been rampant, but is there any proof? Is it possible to substantiate Sigerist's statement (supra. p. 67)? Furthermore, can it be demonstrated that ancient Egypt suffered the same curses of disease so prevalent today?

Modern Disease in Ancient Egypt

   The work of Sir Marc Armand Ruffer, the man who founded paleopathology, now becomes important and fascinating! Additional work in this revolutionary field of the study of disease has helped piece together the amazing picture of ancient diseases.
   As previously mentioned, Ruffer's interests lay in the identification of disease through the record contained in ancient mummies. This proved to be a rich source of information. Initially, it was found that Egyptian skeletons, dating back to the Old Kingdom, were an eloquent catalogue of structural abnormalities! These abnormalities indicate to the expert specific diseases. Many thousands of mummy skeletons have been found with misshapen bones: such malformations as can result from chronic rheumatism. As common as such specimens were, rheumatism evidently afflicted an extraordinarily large number of persons throughout the course of Egyptian history. According to the skeletal record, Ruffer found that periostitis and osteomyletis inflammations of the marrow of the bones, which left distinct traces were nearly as frequently encountered by these people.
   Congenital deformities of the skeletal structure were rarely found, though examples of club foot and similar defects have been discovered at least to the extent that it is known they suffered somewhat from such a "modern" malady. There may indeed have been certain deformities of the fleshy part of the body, which, of course, would have disappeared with its deterioration.
   However, severe cases of diseases of the teeth, jaw, and gums were prevalent! Again, this is a pathological disturbance, which would be readily recorded in the skeletal structure. These ancient peoples apparently suffered ALL THE MODERN DENTAL PROBLEMS! For example, paradentosis, dental caries, and erosion of dental enamel exposing the nerves, which lead to inflammation and abscesses were definitely identified (see Byran, The Papyrus Ebers, p. xxviii).
   Though dental problems were tragically common in the later ages of Egypt, such was not the case in the early dynasties where dental caries are rarely encountered. As is the experience in our age today, dental problems anciently increased with the refinement of foods. In all ages, the cause of this malady lies in improper diet. By the later periods in Egyptian history, dental disease afflicted a considerable portion of the populace, at least as commonly as it occurs today.
   Another of Ruffer's significant contributions to paleopathology was a technique for analyzing the dehydrated and centuries-old body tissue of the mummies. His technique involved soaking the hardened tissues in a solution of three parts alcohol, five parts water, and two parts of a soda solution. He succeeded in restoring the tissue to a degree sufficient for laboratory analysis. Experimenting with his development, he was able to describe smallpox lesions on the parched skin of an ancient mummy! And from Ruffer's day to the present, techniques have continued to improve. In fact, in 1939 scientists were able to begin determining the blood groups of Egyptians who had died several thousand years ago!
   Using this method of restoration to advantage, a vast new area of paleopathology had opened wide to the Egyptologists. A well-known religious tradition was to provide the inspiration for further study. Egyptians practiced the rite of committing their internal organs to the care of patron deities. These were preserved along with a small representation of the idol in canopic jars. Once carefully sealed these jars effectively preserved their contents for Ruffer and others to examine centuries later!
   Ruffer announced the results of microscopic analysis of the restored kidneys of two mummies, dating back at least 1000 years B.C. The scientist had found conclusive evidence of the dreaded parasitical disease of the Nile Valley: bilharzia! This disease was so named after the nineteenth century German doctor Bilharz who reputedly "first explained the disease." Far from being a modern disease, it was an age-old plague of the Nile Valley.
   Such discoveries fired their interest! Once verified, the pursuit for evidence of other bacterial diseases was relentless. Their efforts were not to be denied for ancient Egypt was plagued with disease!
   It was not long until Ruffer was able to demonstrate the presence of staphylococci bacteria in his restored tissues. This was a significant breakthrough in the study of disease! Indeed, these ages apparently suffered the same ravages of more recent eras! It was not surprising, then, though no less remarkable a discovery, when he located the red-shaped form of the plague bacilli. As we shall later see, EPIDEMICS posed a frightful problem at the earliest times in the Earth's history after the Flood.
   Initially, the search for a similar historical record of tuberculosis proved fruitless. Extraordinary obstacles opposed this investigation. Extremely fragile, this bacilli disappears soon after death. In addition, the specimens of mummified lungs were too few to allow the formation of a stable conclusion to the presence or absence of tuberculosis.
   However, astounding pulmonary discoveries were destined to appear! Ruffer located a case of anthracosis in a human being. Continuing in their examination of the preserved lungs pneumonia and pleurisy were detected. Eventually positive evidence of tuberculosis might appear.
   Yet in 1910, a particularly productive year, Ruffer examined the mummy of a priest who apparently lived about 1000 B.C. This individual evidenced the typical curvature of the spine associated with Pott's disease. Continuing his examination through the means of restored tissue, Ruffer found the remains of an extensive abscess in the lumbar muscle. A typical symptom of this disease is the accumulation of tubercular pus in this area. The abcess, no doubt, contained tubercular pus! A conclusive inference could now be drawn: where Pott's disease was so common, tuberculosis of the lungs must have existed!
   Henceforth, there could be little doubt that tuberculosis had registered its effect in Egypt. Later it was directly proved that the disease had carried off whole families. Parents and their children were found buried side by side all victims of spinal tuberculosis or meningitis.
   Pressing the investigation, Ruffer later found gallstones in the liver of a mummy dating to the 21st Dynasty. He also proved a singer of the 12th Dynasty showed signs of chronic gallbladder inflammation. Certain typical adhesions of that area of the intestines indicated that appendicitis was a reality of ancient Egypt. The following year, 1911, Ruffer reportedly found a case of cirrhosis of the liver. Was alcoholism a problem in those days too?
   Two years earlier, in 1909, Elliot Smith and his colleague, Derry, examined a mummy from Nubia of apparently a late date. However, the skin of the hands and feet of this man showed definite signs of leprosy. So evident was the disfigurement of the ancient man, Mr. Smith later published photographs of this case.
   The Ebers Papyrus makes ample reference to the various forms of diarrhea, including such serious cases as amoebic dysentery, gastro enteritis, and cholera!
   Sufficient evidence was also found to indicate the occasional presence of typhoid fever and malaria. No doubt these highly serious ailments resulted from indiscriminate use and care of the Nile.
   Further investigation of the preserved mummies was to show that tonsillitis was known among the Egyptians. Careful examination of the intestines brought to light another "modern" ailment. Egyptians, too, suffered from a form of constipation called "sheep feces" a pellet-like form of bowel movement produced by intestinal cramps. Such an affliction indicates a type of life parallel to what we experience today. This type of constipation is regarded as being due to disturbances of the central nervous system, and commonly arises from the rush and agitation of a nerve-racking life. In this respect the two societies certainly parallel one another!
   As a result of their highly original, persistent, and extensive investigations, the conclusion rightly reached by Ruffer and his associates, was that ALL INTESTINAL DISEASES OF MODERN TIMES OCCURRED IN ANCIENT EGYPT! The mummies had revealed an understanding of the history of disease that had never been remotely imagined in recent times.

Major Modern Diseases

   At this point most will admit that there was disease in Egypt. But the skeptic will ask, what about the really serious maladies of our age: heart and vascular ailment, polio, and cancer? These are the diseases, which characterize our day and are produced by the conditions in a modern society, the tensions of a technical age. Surely there are no case histories of these modern scourges in Egypt!
   As astounding as it may be to us, there were just such cases! Our age has taken the view that arterial diseases are products only of our present civilization. However, similar intemperance, tensions, and hectic pressures of everyday life will produce the same results in any age. Extensive diagnosis of the bodies of dead Egyptians has uncovered a major, modern ailment common to both ages: arteriosclerosis. Egyptians from all eras endured arterial diseases in no way different from today's examples (see Castiglioni, A History of Medicine, p. 47)!
   Even great kings and queens of bygone eras suffered abnormalities of the blood vessels. Prominence of the temple vessels is particularly striking in many mummies indicating, even to the unpracticed eye of the layman, a serious degenerative condition!
   Ruffer was anxious to determine the cause for the general occurrence of arteriosclerosis in Egypt. He studied all the known causes of arterial maladies to determine if any similar problem was the reason for Egypt's disease. He learned that the Egyptians were well known for their over-indulgence in alcohol and food. Apparently, the incidence of alcoholism and gluttony was high. Given to banqueting and excess, some Egyptians followed the practice of vomiting after each course during a feast to make possible further enjoyment at the table.
   This knowledge of their excessive dietary habits gave Ruffer and his colleagues a clue, which could be followed up in the laboratory. They pursued their investigations. Examination of the skin, especially the ample folds of the skin, of royalty, revealed these people had been extremely fat.
   The idealized portraits of a lean people which the Egyptian artists created have given posterity a completely false picture of the Egyptians, just as the idealized statues of Greece later distorted the actual appearance of the Greeks (Thorwald, Science and Secrets of Early Medicine, p. 43).
   Here was a decadent physical weakness, which linked the arterial diseases of Egypt to modern times: obesity.
   Their arterial and cardio-vascular diseases were no doubt partially brought on by continual excesses of food and drink with its resultant obesity.
   There is also reason to believe the incidence of angina pectoris and the present-day female ailment, varicose veins were also common.
   Infantile Paralysis: A stele depicting a crippled servant of the 18th Dynasty (circa 1000 B.C.) shows serious malformation of the man's right leg evidently a result of some type of paralysis. This record of such a condition is not an isolated case. At the turn of the century, J.K. Mitchell discovered a mummy who had suffered from a similar paralysis during its lifetime. Even the dead man's walking stick had been buried with him. After a detailed study, Mitchell made the startling suggestion the man's lameness had been the result of infantile paralysis!
   Such evidence is, of itself, not conclusive proof. However, some ten years after this assertion, W.R. Dawson and a team of other specialists investigated the afore-mentioned stele of Ruma the servant and the theory of Mr. Mitchell. These men, too, concluded that the two cases probably did indicate the incidence of poliomyelitis in ancient Egypt (see Smith, Elliot & Dawson, Egyptian Mummies).
   Cancer: In 1825 A.B. Granville, a predecessor of Ruffer, had discovered an isolated case of a malignant tumor in an ancient mummy. Knowing of this earlier find, Ruffer was determined to prove cancer indigenous to Egypt. Comparatively little evidence was ever found. However, that which was discovered was enlightening. The mummies at least revealed the incidence of osteosarcoma a highly malignant cancer of the bone! Several such tumors were found in the skeletons of mummies from the 5th Dynasty at the Giza Pyramids (circa 1600 B.C.). Evidence of only two other types of this malignant disease was found cancer of the pharynx and of the rectum (see Bryan, The Papyrus Ebers, p. xxvi).
   It logically follows, as in the instance of tuberculosis, that if the skeletal structure was subject to cancer, there is good reason to assume that other organs were afflicted with similar malignancies!
   So Ruffer's work in ancient pathology changed the experts' opinion about the health of ancient Egypt overnight. This anciently inhabited land along the Nile had been seriously afflicted with the most modern diseases as early as the 1st Dynasty the Old Kingdom.
   Such a display of disease and death not to mention the additional requirements of war demanded an adequate medical practice to attempt its control. As Herodotus stated, the Egyptian doctors were specialists. It is obvious they had to be, to attempt to handle such a ravage of the human body!
   Inscriptions on tombs indicate the highly specialized nature of early medicine. There was a "Guardian of the Royal Bowel Movement," a "Guardian of the Royal Nose," an "Eye Doctor of the Palace," a "Doctor of the Abdomen," and etc. Such diversity of practice indicates these ancient peoples had staged a monumental effort to control disease through a COMPETENT medical faculty.
   This is the fascinating story of the following chapter!

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Publication Date: 1969
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