published on 18 January 2012
Women in Ancient Egypt enjoyed many more freedoms than women in Ancient Greece or Rome. Egyptian Women who were educated were entitled to study any field they chose, and to become respected professionals in their chosen exploits. Unlike their ancient counterparts who were largely relegated to such positions as handmaidens, housewives, or prostitutes, Ancient Egyptian women could work as scribes, scholars, and even as physicians.
The study of medicine in Ancient Egypt was a worthy and important endeavor for women and men alike. It was a constantly evolving field, and a very spiritual one as well, incorporating elements of prayer, natural healing methods, and good old-fashioned study and practice. Egyptian women who desired to study medicine often became apprentices to other physicians, and would have sometimes worked their way through their studies as scribes.
Throughout the ancient history of Egypt, there were greater than one hundred female doctors (at least documented). These women were well learned and highly respected in their fields, with images appearing on tomb walls, and hieroglyphics about them etched onto steles. Female physicians in Egypt particularly studied obstetrics, and were also known to have been instructors at Egyptian medical training schools.
Among the most significant and important physicians (male or female) of her time was Peseshet. According to inscriptions on a stela found in an Old Kingdom (approximately 3100 - 2100 B.C.) tomb, she was known as an “overseer of doctors”. Thus she was not only a physician in her own right, but she was also the supervisor and administrator of an entire body of female physicians.
Another noteworthy female physician from Ancient Egypt was Merit Ptah. It is believed by Egyptologists that she was the first-ever named physician. She also holds the distinction of being the first woman known by name in the history of the field of medicine. She practiced medicine nearly 5,000 years ago, and was immortalized by her son on her tomb as “the chief physician”.
Yet another notable Egyptian woman made her mark on the field of obstetrics and gynecology. In the second century A.D., a physician named Cleopatra (not the long-dead former Queen) wrote extensively about pregnancy, childbirth, and women’s health. Her writing were consulted and studied for over 1000 years.
The study and practice of medicine in Ancient Egypt was a vital element to their society. The Egyptians were notoriously concerned with cleanliness and disease, and throughout their history, Egyptian physicians studied to find better ways to practice hygiene and treat common conditions. This study and practice was in no way limited to men. Egyptian women were fortunate that their society allowed them to pursue dreams beyond domesticity, and work to become among the most respected physicians of their time, and beyond.