How the Imhotep “Mummy” became the God of Medicine…

After climate change had turned the Sahara into a desert approximately 7,000 years ago, humans withdrew to the Nile valley, which had remained fertile. It was here that Egyptian high culture developed, at first existing as two kingdoms – Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. King “Scorpion” was one of the kings reigning during this era, known from the film The Mummy and portrayed by the American wrestler “The Rock”. Shortly after Scorpion’s reign, King Narmer was able to unite Egypt around 3000 BC. The First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom had begun.

King Djoser (Neker-I-yet) reigned during the Third Dynasty. He was given support in affairs of state from his vizier, Imhotep. He is also known from various mummy films, in which Imhotep was played by the classical horror film actor Boris Karloff in 1932 and by the South African actor Arnold Vosloo in a 1999 remake. In these films, he had fallen in love with the Pharaoh’s daughter and tried to fetch her back from the underworld after her death using a magic formula from the goddess Isis. He was sentenced to a nameless death for this double sacrilege and mummified when still alive.

Of course, all of that is nonsense. Imhotep was in his Pharaoh’s favor until his death. He was a brilliant politician and great architect: He constructed the first step pyramid in history, in which his Pharaoh Djoser was later laid to rest. Above all, he was a gifted physician: He did not know the magic formula Isis used to waken Osiris from the dead, but he created medical compendia, including an overview of all healing plants and medicines. His knowledge of anatomy allowed him to develop a new method of mummification during which all decaying parts of the body were removed and replaced with artificial ones. This method was probably used on all royal mummies of the Old Dynasty and was widespread for many centuries, until the time of the Middle Kingdom. The body was first skeletonized and then modelled with linen bandages using plaster and resin. The result was lifelike, painted mummy sculptures resembling shop window dolls. Unfortunately, only a very few such mummies have remained preserved. The few royal mummies found from the Old Kingdom, such as those of Queen Shesheshet and Prince Teti-Ankhem, both from the 6th Dynasty, were damaged in ancient times by grave robbers and are very badly preserved.

It was around 800 years later that mummification methods were improved, making it possible to preserve the whole body. This method was used to mummify the famous Pharaohs of the New Kingdom, Ramses II., Tut Ench Amun, Hatschepsut. Their bodies have been extremely well conserved and can be viewed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. However, the inner organs were removed, as before, and stored in “canopic jars”.

Imhotep was probably buried in Sakkara, near to his Pharaoh. In Greek antiquity, Egypt was the mecca of medicine and Imhotep was raised to the status of God of Medicine with the name “Asklepios” (Aesculapius). Huge numbers of pilgrims journeyed to Sakkara, where sacrifices were made to Imhotep. To a great extent, the wisdom of Galen and Hippocrates can be traced back to Imhotep’s research, and thus an extensive part of the medicine practiced in Arab countries and later in Europe.

Following in Imhotep’s footsteps, many brilliant doctors have made advances in medical science. A great deal has also taken place during recent years: The development of therapies using autologous stem cells, for example, is due to the efforts of individual doctors. Operations on an outpatient basis using tumescent anesthesia, now an integral part of surgical practice, were developed by individual aesthetic surgeons. Hormonal regeneration with bioidentical hormones was also developed by individual physicians.

Here it can be seen how important it is that brilliant physicians are allowed to continue their research and that medical therapy freedom is not restricted by bureaucrats. What would have become of medicine if Pharaoh Djoser’s officials had directed Imhotep on how to treat his patients?

Yet this is exactly what medical science is threatened with now in the EU: Following pressure from lobbyists, politicians at EU level are trying to place restrictions on the freedoms physicians have when offering medical therapy. The plan is that all doctors would have to offer treatment according to predetermined diagnosis/therapy lists. The financial interests of pharmaceutical companies are behind this development, seeking to ensure that only those therapies that have been “confirmed” by them in studies costing millions may be used – so-called “evidence-based medicine”. Financing for these expensive studies is, of course, geared towards patentable medicines, with which nice profits can be made.

In future it would not be possible, or hardly possible, to use types of therapy other than those approved by the state. Given the rapid pace of progress in medicine, patients in our country would be denied new types of therapy possibly already on offer in other countries.

Additionally, certain politicians would like to centralize and nationalize medicine. They would prefer to banish physicians to state-run polyclinics where they would only be permitted to apply state-certified therapies and would have to enter all patient data in a state-operated electronic computer system (“ELGA” (Electronic Health Records) already exists), whereby all sensitive patient data would be accessible to state civil servants. Do you want your health records to be accessible to people you do not know? Since the Edward Snowden affair we all know what the state of absolute data security means. You can bet that the whole thing will be sold to us as “protecting patient security” ;-).

Generations of archaeologists have attempted to find Imhotep’s grave, but to date have not been successful. His ingenuity can also be seen here: In contrast to his Pharaoh Djoser, whose pyramid had already been stolen from in ancient times, Imhotep had taken the precaution of hiding his tomb, and its exact location was already forgotten in antiquity.

We should all hope that good physicians in the EU continue to have the possibility to advance medical knowledge and use their responsibility in the best way to select optimal treatment for their patients; even if these doctors are not quite as brilliant as Imhotep.

DDr. Heinrich, MD

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