Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Elixirs of the Gods: Medicine in the Ancient World

Magic is effective together with medicine. Medicine is effective together with magic.
-The Ebers Papyrus, ca. 1500 BCE 

Traveling through Egypt, I was hit with a bad case of Traveler's Yucky Tummy (yes, this is a technical term.) And lo and behold, the Egyptian Elixir of the Gods from the pharmacy across the street was the most amazing miracle cure I have ever encountered. Bar none. I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised. The Egyptians have been cooking up the world's best medicines for thousands of years.

The world's first known doctor lived in 2600 BC. Imhotep was an Egyptian advisor to the pharaohs who practiced medicine, but naturally believed all human pathology to be acts of the gods. Later, he was worshipped as the god of medicine in both Egypt and Greece.

How do we know this?

Well, the medicine of Imhotep and his followers was documented in two ancient Egyptian medical texts. The Ebers Papyrus and the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, named for their discoverers, both date to 1600-1500 BC. The Edwin Smith papyrus is thought to be a copy of a much earlier text.

Oh Isis, thou great enchantress, heal me, deliver me from all evil, bad, typhonic things, from demoniacal and deadly diseases and pollutions of all sorts that rush upon me, as thou didst deliver and release thy son Horus!
-The Ebers Papyrus, ca. 1500 BCE

Documented within these early texts were early surgical procedures, various maladies and their treatments. Included in the Edwin Smith papyrus is the first known documentation of both benign and malignant cancers. It was treated with an instrument called the "fire drill" - essentially a cauterizer used to burn the tumor off. But it was also noted that there was no cure.

“Bulging tumors on his breast” means the existence of swellings on his breast, large, spreading and hard; touching them is like touching a ball of wrappings; the comparison is to a green hemat fruit, which is hard and cool under thy hand, like touching those swellings which are on his breast.
There is no treatment.
-The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, 1600 BCE

Between about 460 and 377 BC, Hippocrates described the "four humors" - blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile - and believed that the imbalance of these four humors was what led to human disease. OK, so Hippocrates may have missed the mark a little bit, but his hypothesis of the four humors marked a major breakthrough in medicine. Rather than attributing human malignancy to acts of the gods, he was placing blame for the first time on components within the human body. The "four humors" school of thought prevailed for 1400 years.

It was also Hippocrates who coined the word "cancer." The Greek term "karkinos," meaning crab, is the root of cancer, carcinoma, carcigen, and many other modern words associated with cancer. And it is from him that we get the "Hippocratic Oath" - the physician's famous promise to "First, do no harm."

In 146 BC and 30 BC, the Romans conquered Greece and Egypt respectively. These conquests incorporated Greek and Egyptian medicine into the superpower of Rome. By 30 BC, the Romans had begun building hospitals to treat patients instead of temples. Surgeons used many tools similar to those utilized today, including forceps, scalpels, scissors, lancets, and catheters. They also sterilized their instruments prior to use by boiling them.

In addition to the tool kit that had evolved through the centuries, an extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs had also been accumulated. Ancient surgeons used opiates to dull pain during surgeries, and physicians also prescribed opiates as palliative medicine to ease the pain of any malady. Acetic acid, the acid that comprises vinegar, was used as an antiseptic to sterilize wounds and prepare patients for surgeries. 

It was a Roman physician, Dioscorides, who compiled the medical knowledge from ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, into a single document. His medical text, De Materia Medica, remained the extant authority on medicine until the Renaissance.

Some of the material in De Materia Medica had come from Dioscorides' travels as a physician with the army of Emperor Nero. But much of the medical knowledge described therein had, in fact, been accrued centuries before he was born. It is believed that many of the plant species described in De Materia Medica had come from the campaigns of Alexander the Great, and that this knowledge had been passed down to Dioscorides through the wealth of papyrus scrolls once accrued in the Great Library of Alexandria.

When the lost cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered in the 1700s, many artifacts of ancient Roman medicine were found in the ruins. Also found in the ash were the root systems of the medicinal plants that had been growing in Pompeii's gardens at time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The same plaster casting techniques used to reconstruct human corpses was also employed to reconstruct an agricultural snapshot of Pompeii and Herculaneum at the time of the eruption.

I would love to know what was contained in those little Egyptian wonder pills that cured my tummy ache. And I'd love to know if it was cultivated in the gardens of ancient Pompeii, and documented by Dioscorides in De Materia Medica.

Egyptian Wonder Pills
American Cancer Society - History of Cancer. 
The Chemical Heritage Foundation -Chemotherapy Timeline. 
National Cancer Institute - Closing in on Cancer: Solving a 5000-Year-Old Mystery).

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise. Order your copy of The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon (print or Kindle version,) BarnesandNoble.com (print or Nook version,) Kobo.com (Kobo version,) or iBookstore (iBooks version.) Or purchase a SIGNED copy at www.kristenelisephd.com.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children.