Over the years, even to this day, the Greek physician, Hippocrates has been referred to as the Father of Medicine. That is not true. More than 2000 years before Hippocrates was born, a Black Egyptian was practising medicine and also writing on the subject. His name…Imhotep.
It is safe to regard Imhotep as the world’s first genius because of his immense contributions to humanity and different fields of study, especially medicine, engineering, and architecture.
One of the most intelligent humans who ever lived, Imhotep is notable for drawing the architectural designs used in building one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Interestingly, it is the only Ancient Wonder that still stands to this day.
This article seeks to prove that Imhotep, an African physician, is the real father of medicine and not Hippocrates as it’s widely believed.
Who was Imhotep?
Imhotep lived during the third dynasty of the old Egyptian Kingdom. This was during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser from about 2650 to 2575 BC. Imhotep occupied various positions and occupations in his lifetime. He functioned as an architect, a priest, a physician, a writer, an astronomer, a mathematician, and a philosopher. Imhotep was born in Gebelin, south of Egypt’s capital, Thebes. His father was an architect named Kanofer while his mother was Kheredu-ankh, said to be the human daughter of the ram god, Banebdjedet.
His journey to fame was stipulated to have begun in the temple of Ptah where he was a high priest. He was often referred to as the Son of Ptah. Ptah was an ancient god of Memphis whom the people prayed to for healing. He had no previous ties with royalty nor was he of noble birth but he rose to prominence during the reign of Djoser, who he served as chancellor and advisor.
Imhotep had vast knowledge of a variety of subjects ranging from architecture, engineering, astrology, artistry to anatomy, and medicine. Djoser’s reign brought about many technological advancements and advanced building projects. This served as the perfect platform for Imhotep to thrive being a multi-talented and skilled individual. His intelligence made room for him in the corridors of power as he rose through the ranks to occupy the highest position a palace official could occupy which was the ‘Vizier’.
As vizier, Imhotep was placed in charge of everything concerning the kingdom. From politics, agriculture to the treasury, war, to the judiciary, religious matters, and so on, he was second in command to the Pharaoh. Egyptians also believed that the vizier also had magical powers which is why the office was also termed as “supervisor of that which Heaven brings, the Earth creates, and the Nile brings.”
During Imhotep’s reign as vizier, one of his recorded exceptional acts was when he helped the Pharaoh stop a famine that lasted for seven years. He was said to have counselled the king on how to appease the god Khnum which put a stop to the famine. Speculations abound that he wrote the document which birthed the Edwin Smith Papyrus.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a medical manuscript purchased by Edwin Smith, an antique dealer, in 1862. The manuscript was named after its buyer and was written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. This manuscript contained explicit details of surgery procedures, almost fifty types of wounds, tumours, and so on. It had titles and steps well outlined for easy understanding. These outlined steps are used in modern-day medicine for examining patients and diagnosing ailments.
Ailments were categorised according to their severity which the author would place in three different classes tagged, “An ailment I will handle”, “An ailment I will fight with” or “An ailment for which nothing can be done.”
The document also contained explicit physiological and anatomical descriptions as well as various treatment processes for these wounds including bandaging, suturing, and treating infections with natural products like honey and resins. The use of these along with many other natural products is still being researched today and has brought about great advancement in modern medicine. Many of them have served as the basis for pharmaceutical research in recent years.
The findings of these Egyptian physicians seemed more or less prophetic as many of them are still in use today although further refined for increased effectiveness. Even the surgical and medical knives designed in Ancient Egypt have maintained their structure in modern times. The manuscript was first interpreted by James Henry Breasted, a renowned American historian. Breasted also described Imhotep as a patron spirit of scribes to who they poured libations before they commenced work.
Imhotep: The One Who Comes in Peace
As a scribe, Imhotep had many writings on architecture, poems, scientific, religious, and moral subjects. His philosophies, just like his name implied, promoted peace, contentment, and cheerfulness. No original copies of these works have ever been found but references to them by other writers in the ancient world confirm their existence.
He was said to have also authored an encyclopedia on architecture which served as a guide for many other architects later. So much was his impact that he was deified as a demigod a century after his death and then as the god of medicine and healing 2,000 years after his death.
Imhotep was so important to Djoser that his name was inscribed on the king’s throne and statues along with various venerable titles such as the prince of peace, the first after the king of upper Egypt, Sculptor and Maker of Vases Chief, the chief carpenter, chancellor of the king of lower Egypt, administrator of the great mansion, the hereditary Noble, and the high priest of Heliopolis.
He was also included in the Memphis triad replacing Nefertum. The triad originally consisted of Ptah (the god of creation), Sekhmet (the goddess of healing and wife of Ptah), and their son Nefertum.
Different parts of the world honoured and worshipped Imhotep giving him different titles that best explained his impact on them. In Greece, he was identified as the god of medicine, Asclepius. In Rome, different inscriptions in honour of him were made on the walls of their temples including that of Emperors Claudius and Tiberius. Even early Christians were said to have referred to him as the prince of peace.
Imhotep: The Real Father of Medicine
The Egyptians are the first known populace to develop the medical profession and Imhotep became the first Egyptian physician. What made Imhotep stand out, particularly in the world of medicine in Egypt at the time, was his medical discoveries which were not based on magic or mysticism.
Other physicians had to combine magic and spiritual practices for healing. But with Imhotep, it was strictly scientific. He was a prolific writer and had the Edwin Smith Papyrus to show for it. The anatomical descriptions in the Edwin Smith Papyrus proposed to be written by Imhotep show that he had concrete knowledge of the location of vital organs of the body and how to operate on them.
Having built the first Egyptian pyramid, it is believed that Imhotep must have witnessed many workers get injured as a result of work hazards. Little wonder the need for such in-depth findings of medical procedures in the papyrus. He is said to have treated over 200 illnesses such as tuberculosis, arthritis, appendicitis, diseases of the abdomen, bladder, eyes, and so on, while he lived. This genius also conducted surgeries and is believed to have founded the very first school of medicine in Memphis.
Contrary to many schools of thought which opined that Hippocrates was the father of medicine, Imhotep might have been the real father of medicine instead. Historians believe that colonisation played a major role in accrediting the title to Hippocrates but recent findings have come up to prove that the real father of medicine is from Africa.
Hippocrates even referred to the Egyptian sage in the Hippocratic Oath which begins with a reference to Asclepius, Imhotep’s deification name in Greek, as the god of medicine. To further strengthen this notion, investigations showed that Imhotep lived about 2000 years before Hippocrates was even born. There are also speculations that the famous “Hippocratic Oath” taken by newly inducted doctors was coined by Imhotep himself. However, there are no concrete records to prove this.
Many would later visit the pyramid he constructed at Saqqara to pay obeisance to him, offering sacrifices with the hope of getting healed of their ailments. A temple was built in his name in Memphis and many people suffering from different ailments would visit the temple optimistic about being healed from their diseases. Imhotep played a major role in history by changing the trajectory of medicine and, perhaps, laying the framework for medical practitioners today.
Imhotep’s Architectural Feats
Imhotep was a highly-skilled architect who designed and erected many notable buildings such as the Djoser Step Pyramid complex in Saqqara and the unfinished Sekhemkhet pyramid. It is possible that he retained his Noble position after Djoser’s death and began construction of Pharaoh Sekhemkhet’s pyramid who died just six years after assuming the throne, thus, explaining the unfinished pyramid.
He also served as an advisor to succeeding kings Khaba and Huni. Pharaoh Khaba also began his own ‘Layer pyramid’ which was also not completed at his death. Before the pyramid project, building constructions had been made with just mud bricks but Imhotep decided to take it a step further by building with stones.
The Djoser pyramid was so complex, having a series of tunnels and galleries. It was to be the burial site of the Pharaoh and the tomb was made of granite. It was Egyptian culture to send the Pharaoh to the afterlife with gifts and treasured items. In the pyramid, about 40,000 vessels were found.
The Djoser pyramid is considered in history as one of the very first stone structures to portray architectural brilliance and expertise. The pyramid, which consists of six steps, is about 200 feet and took about twenty years to complete and stands to this day as a major site of attraction for tourists in Egypt.
Imhotep’s architectural feats opened up the Egyptian dynasty and the rest of the world to new possibilities never imagined. The complexities and solidity of his building projects became an example for others embarking on such projects to follow.
After he successfully built such a huge edifice made completely of stone, other buildings in the same fashion sprung up within and outside Egypt. The Great Pyramids of Giza built in honour of Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure also emerged. Visitors, like the Greeks, who came to see the monument, replicated the designs in their own countries.
The Death and Legacy of Imhotep
Imhotep’s brilliance, skill, expertise, and works remain a wonder to behold to this day. How one man could excel in completely different occupational areas in the ancient world is truly remarkable. Most notable of his works is that he laid the foundations upon which modern medicine would build on. His phenomenal works got him associated with Thot, the Egyptian god of wisdom, architecture, writing, and learning. It also earned him the position of a god in Ancient Egypt, a position only attained by him and Amenhotep, another architect who lived during the 18th dynasty.
The location of Imhotep’s burial tomb remains unknown but many historians believe it is hidden somewhere in the Djoser pyramid of Saqqara. The polymath was also depicted in various movies such as the famous 1932 movie The Mummy where his character played an antagonistic role, the sequel produced in 1999, and even in a TV show Stargate, where he was portrayed as a false god. Many loyalists acclaimed that the demigod was falsely represented in these movies but this has done nothing to nullify the impact he made on history.
Imhotep opened up the world to many innovations that are still being applauded today. This African genius excelled in every field of study he was involved in and, possibly, without his discoveries, we may not be enjoying the advancements we have today in engineering and medicine.
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