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Africa’s Imhotep, the real father of modern medicine

Whose name should be identified with knowledge and whose name should not?
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The history of Western medicine largely excludes the prime contribution of Africa in the application of reason, logic and science in the prevention and understanding of diseases. This injustice is immediately visible in the attribution of the title of the “father of modern medicine” to a European, the Greek physician, Hippocrates, instead of an African, the Egyptian physician, Imhotep. Yet, archaeological research has established that thousands of years before Hippocrates, Imhotep, a physician of extraordinary intelligence, left detailed writings on the prevention and treatment of numerous diseases.

Who is Imhotep?

Like in ancient Greece where student doctors took an oath before induction into medical practice, many graduates from medical schools today are made to swear the so-called Hippocratic Oath. The Hippocratic Oath is a derived version of a popular Greek medical text attributed to Hippocrates who is said to have revolutionized the understanding of medicine. Hippocrates, it is widely propagated, transformed medicine into a field of study based on clinical symptoms and scientific conclusions rather than religious or supernatural beliefs. To date, medical history books teach that before Hippocrates, medicine was founded on superstitious beliefs and spiritualism.

However, thousands of years before Hippocrates, a genius African physician scientifically diagnosed and treated diseases. His name was Imhotep. Imhotep was an architect, engineer, philosopher, writer, priest and physician. His writings include medical diagnosis, examination, findings, prognosis and therapy.

Imhotep wrote the very first scientific work of medical significance which was discovered in 1862 when grave robbers in Egypt dug up some treasures, including a 15-feet long papyrus with writings on both sides. In almost 500 lines of text, which includes 48 case studies, the Papyrus presents a logical and highly organized work of a master scientist physician. The robbers sold the Papyrus to British Egyptologist Edwin Smith whose name became synonymous with the Papyrus. The Papyrus illustrates how to diagnose and treat diverse traumatic and incidental injuries to the head, face, neck, arms, chest, shoulder, and spinal column, among other medical treatises.

By 1930, an in-depth examination conducted by Professor James Breasted established that the Papyrus was a copy of an original manuscript that must have dated as far back as 3,000 BC. The now so-called Edwin Smith Papyrus was attributed to Imhotep, a high officer or chief minister to Djoser (also known as Zoser), the second king of Egypt’s third dynasty (2630–2611 BCE). In his lifetime, Imhotep identified and cured over 200 ailments, including TB, appendicitis, gout, gallstones, and arthritis. He also performed surgery and may have established the world’s first hospital as well as a medical school in Memphis, Egypt.

The famed American archaeologist and Egyptologist James Henry Breasted in describing Imhotep said: “In priestly wisdom, in magic, in the formulation of wise proverbs; in medicine and architecture; this remarkable figure of Djoser’s reign left so notable a reputation that his name was never forgotten.” Sir William Osler, a 19th-century British medical practitioner described Imhotep as “the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity.”

Prior to the discovery of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the oldest written record of occupational medicine was dated to the time of Hippocrates (c 460 BCE-c 370 BCE). Historically therefore, available written records show that it was not Hippocrates, but Imhotep who first argued that diseases are caused by natural causes, and not as a result of spiritual activities. Hippocrates would repeat that claim 2,000 years later. The erroneous attribution of the title of the “Father of Modern Medicine” to the Greek physician, Hippocrates, should have been discontinued with accurate transliteration of the works of the Egyptian physician, Imhotep, contained in the Edwin Smith Papyrus.

Egyptian origin of Hippocrates’ medical knowledge 

Research and archeological evidence establish that Imhotep taught many Greek physicians on “the philosophy and practice of the art of medicine.” According to respected Greek historian Isocrates, Hippocrates studied under Pythagoras, who himself studied in Egypt for 22 years before returning to Greece to teach medicine. Professor and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop asserts that Africa, specifically Egypt, was a place where the Greeks visited to “drink at the fount of scientific, religious, moral and social knowledge, the most ancient such knowledge that mankind had acquired.”

Egyptian medicinal procedures were greatly admired by the Greeks. Plato discusses Egyptian doctors in his Dialogues and even swears by them as if they were gods. The Greeks, in fact, functioned as a route for Egyptian medical methods to reach a wider population. According to Egyptologist Margaret Bunson, “the Greeks honored many of the early Egyptian priest-physicians, especially Imhotep, whom they equated with their god Asclepius.”

Reinstating Africa in ancient medical history

One may wonder why Imhotep’s documents are known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus and not by the name of the person widely credited with the knowledge it contains. This reverts to questions about visibility, whose name should be identified with knowledge and whose name should not; the British Edwin Smith or the African Imhotep. The very same reason explains why medical history teaches that Hippocrates is the father of modern medicine.

There is no historical evidence that continues to support the attribution of the father of Western medicine to the European Physician, Hippocrates. It must no longer be taught in schools around the world. It was Imhotep, the African physician, who first provided the oldest known scientific knowledge regarding surgery and clinical medicine, the use of experimental scientific observation, and a variety of diagnostic and treatment approaches. His writings contain astonishingly precise findings on physiology, anatomy, and diseases. The Papyri detail precise anatomical clinical correlations, as well as the use of cautery, hemostasis, tapes, sutures, and the early stages of antisepsis with copper salts.

If European medical schools wish to restrict their medical students to the European history of medicine, then it may begin with Hippocrates, while respectfully attributing his knowledge to his African sources. But this cannot be the history taught in African schools. If the idea is to teach the truth about the ancient history of conventional medicine, then Imhotep is the physician undoubtedly placed at the centre. Imhotep of Egypt in Africa is the father of modern medicine.

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