Imhotep: The True Father of Medicine

Imhotep, Father of Medicine
Imhotep, Father of Medicine

Everyone in the field of medicine knows about the hippocratic oath. The Hippocratic Oath is an oath traditionally taken by physicians pertaining to the ethical practice of medicine. It is widely believed that it was written by a man named Hippocrates, the “father of medicine”, or by one of his students. It is believed he lived around 460 B.C.- 370 B.C. However, after taking another look at history some are of the opinion that the title bestowed upon this man is very misleading. Records show that a man by the name of Imhotep was treating ill patients with modern techniques many generations before Hippocrates appearance in history.

Imhotep, not Hippocrates is the first physician known by name in written history. Imhotep lived during the Third Dynasty at the court of King Zoser. Imhotep was a known scribe, chief lector, priest, architect, astronomer and magician (medicine and magic fell under this category). For 3000 years he was worshipped as a god in Greece and Rome. When the Greeks conquered Egypt they recognized his contributions and adopted his methodologies in their medicine, and continued to build temples to him.

Hippocrates was an ancient Greek physician in the Age of Pericles, considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine. He is often referred to as "The Father of Medicine” in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field as the founder of the Hippocratic school of medicine. This school revolutionized medicine in ancient Greece, establishing it as a discipline distinct from other fields that it had traditionally been associated with (notably theurgy—the practice of rituals, sometimes seen as magical in nature and philosophy) and making a profession of it. It is significant that in a time of superstition, Hippocrates taught that diseases came from natural causes. He had observed many patients and carefully recorded their symptoms and the way their illnesses developed. He would look at the color of the skin, and how the eyes looked. He would look for fevers and chills. He described many illnesses including pneumonia, tetanus, tuberculosis, arthritis, mumps, and malaria.

While Hippocrates’ accomplishments were remarkable, Sir William Osler said it was Imhotep who was the real Father of Medicine, "the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity." Historical evidence seems to support this statement. Imhotep diagnosed and treated over 200 diseases, 15 diseases of the abdomen, 11 of the bladder, 10 of the rectum, 29 of the eyes, and 18 of the skin, hair, nails and tongue. Specifically Imhotep treated tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout and arthritis. He also performed surgery and practiced some dentistry. Imhotep extracted medicine from plants. He also knew the position and function of the vital organs and circulation of the blood system.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says, "The evidence afforded by Egyptian and Greek texts support the view that Imhotep's reputation was respected in early times...His prestige increased with the lapse of centuries and his temples in Greek times were the centers of medical teachings."

It is therefore inaccurate to call Hippocrates who lived approximately 400 years before the common era the “the father of medicine” when Imhotep, who lived approximately 2600 years before him, practiced a type of science and medicine that was just as remarkable.

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