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Ancient Egyptian Medicine 2 -  Women’s health


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Women’s health was also closely looked after by the ancient Egyptians. Physicians in obstetric and gynaecology were present in ancient Egypt together with a number of midwives.

 The Egyptians liked to have large families, partly because of the high mortality rate, and partly because a numerous progeny reflected credit on the parents especially he father.

Fertility, the gift of Osiris, was prized and sterility was more than unfortunate. A childless wife was likely returned to her father. There were many prescriptions for aiding conception and the Egyptians developed their own forms of pregnancy tests to confirm the good news. Contraception was also practiced but with rather weird magical potions.

Many women died as young adults, and childbirth and associated complications may well have been the cause. Many children also died,this would have led to women having numerous children, and for some women these successive pregnancies would have been fatal. Even after giving birth successfully, women could still die from complications such as puerperal fever. It was not until the 20th century that improved standards of hygiene during childbirth started to prevent such deaths

People are open to the greatest health risks during infancy and early childhood, and in Egypt there was a high infant mortality rate. During the breastfeeding period the baby is protected from infections by ingesting .


Dwarf god Bes

Mother's milk, but once weaned onto solid foods the chances of infection are high. Consequently many infants would have died of diarrhoea and similar disorders caused by food contaminated by bacteria or even intestinal parasites. In some ancient Egyptian cemeteries at least a third of all burials are those of children.


Different tests used by the Egyptians:
Fertility was diagnosed by placing garlic in the vagina for one night. If the next day the woman can taste or smell it in her mouth, she is fertile. This is based upon the connection between the genital parts and interior of the body. Such connection would be lost in a case of obstructed Fallopian tubes. In modern medicine, phenolphthalein injected in the uterus would appear in urine based upon the same principle. A test known to gynecologists as “Speck’s test”.

The physicians of Ancient Egypt understood that infertility could occur in both male and female partners. They also recognised the role of male ejaculate in pregnancy.

Diagnosis of pregnancy and sex determination of the future child was based on the fact that pregnant urine germinates cereals more rapid then non-pregnant one. If the child was a male, the urine would germinate wheat, and if a female, it would geminate barley.


Delivery was performed in the squatting position, with the woman supporting her arms on knees and sitting on two bricks. Difficult labors were aided by burning resin, or massaging the abdomen by saffron powder and beer. Abortions were done by introduction of warm oil and fat in the vagina.

“Houses of birth” or “Mammisi” were near to temples. They were visited by pregnant women seeking divine help, rather than being a birth place.

Birth took place within the family home, with the assistance of a midwife. A birthing stool was used for the mother to squat on, her baby passing through a hole in the seat into the hands of the midwife. The umbilical cord was cut with a knife of obsidian, and the placenta was sometimes buried at the doorstep.

Infants were breast fed for three years, and this was encouraged:

Milk stimulants were resorted to, as mentioned in Ebers Papyrus.

Only when the mother failed to feed her infant, they resorted to cow milk.

Contraception was also performed by the insertion of crocodile oil, gum acacia or honey consperge and natron into the vagina. Gum acacia when dissolved produces lactic acid, a very effective known spermicidal.

Kahun Gynecological Papyrus

The Kahun Papyrus was discovered by Flinders Petrie in April of 1889 at the Fayum site of Lahun. The town itself flourished during the Middle Kingdom, principally under the reign of Amenenhat II and his immediate successor. The gynecological text can be divided into thirty-four paragraphs, of which the first seventeen have a common format. The first seventeen start with a title and are followed by a brief description of the symptoms, usually, though not always, having to do with the reproductive organs.

The second section begins on the third page, and comprises eight paragraphs. Paragraph 19 is concerned with the recognition of who will give birth; paragraph 20 is concerned with the fumigation procedure which causes conception to occur; and paragraphs 20-22 are concerned with contraception. Among those materials prescribed for contraception are crocodile dung, 45ml of honey, and sour milk.

The third section (paragraphs 26-32) is concerned with the testing for pregnancy. Other methods include the placing of an onion bulb deep in the patients flesh, with the positive outcome being determined by the odor appearing to the patients nose.

The fourth and final section contains two paragraphs which do not fall into any of the previous categories. The first prescribes treatment for toothaches during pregnancy. The second describes what appears to be a fistula between bladder and vagina with incontinence of urine.


The children in ancient Egypt lived a calm and peaceful life, they played outdoors and the diet was varied and adequate. However, not all of them survived into adulthood. There were a number of uncurable diseases like smallpox, leprosy and poliomyelitis. They suffered from insect born diseases such as malaria and trachoma, an eye disease, measles, tuberculosis, and cholera. It is believed that there were occasional outbreaks of the bubonic plague spread along trade routes from the east. They contracted diseases such as trichinae, parasitic worms, and tuberculosis from their livestock.

The ancient Egyptians also had male circumcision done for all males. They performed it in between the ages of 6 and 12. They did it for reasons of hygiene.

A number of known obstetricians that we know in history were present in Egypt. Philo Judaeus (c.20 BC-50AD) lived and worked in Alexandria.
Soranos of Ephesus (98-177 AD) was a leading obstetrician and gynaecologist of his day. He trained at Alexandria and practiced in Rome. He supported the official training of midwives and wrote a major work, On Midwifery and the Diseases of Women.


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