Saturday, 4 August 2012

Imhotep: The mummy of all medics

Anyone who has ever watched The Mummy will find it hard to say Imhotep without chanting it in a menacing zombie voice. But the real Im-ho-tep was a long way from the silver screen's lovesick hotty, hellbent on destroying Brendan Fraser. He was chief architect to Pharaoh Djoser and one of the forefathers of methodical medicine.

Unlike the Pharaoh he came to serve, Imhotep wasn't born into wealth or power. He began life as a commoner. Yet after his death he was described as the son of Ptah, who was the chief God in Memphis, and the Greeks built temples in his honour. So how did Imhotep achieve this stellar trajectory? In the words of a small Belgian genius: Order and method.

These qualities define the Edwin-Smith papyrus, a scroll that stretches to almost 5 metres in length and dates to 1700BC. While its author is unknown, the papyrus is thought to have been copied from a far earlier scroll (circa 2500BC) which detailed the teachings of Imhotep. The black and red hieroglyphs scrawled across the papyrus outline 48 case histories, 8 spells and 5 prescriptions. 
While the magic spells may capture the imagination, and milk poured into the ears for neurological problems intrigues, the true beauty of the papyrus lies in its deliciously mundane commitment to order. The cases are lined up in a deeply straightforward fashion, beginning at the head, before moving to the neck, then the arms and torso. The content of each study is presented in a divinely dull, disciplined manner that any medical student would find recognisable: type of injury, examination, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. It is descriptive and detailed. Wounds should be closed with sutures, spinal injuries immobilised. Duh. The familiarity is electrifying. This is not new. It is very, very old. Over 4,500 years old. Think about how long ago the time of Jesus et al seems- 2000 years ago, its aaaages ago right? Well, that's how Hippocrates would have felt about Imhotep's world which existed 2000 years before old Hippocrates drew his first breath or wore his first nappy.

Yet ven back in antiquity Imhotep was doing what every good medic, indeed every good scientist, would do today- apply logic, turn the mystical into the familiar. The foundations of medicine are as simple and solid as they were 4, 500 years ago. Those guiding principles of order and method were good enough to make Imhotep a godlike figure. They're probably good enough for us too.

While there is minimal mystique and magic in the Edwin-Smith papyrus, Imhotep made up for it in his death. There is no clear record of how or when he died and the location of his tomb has eluded every explorer. Some might see this as a loss, only Ra knows what wisdom Imhotep had buried with him for the next life. But this is foolish. I hope Imhotep evades those who wish to wake him from his slumber. After all, I've seen the movie....

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