Friday, March 9, 2018

Merit Ptah, Ancient Egyptian Chief Physician

Merit Ptah, Chief Physician, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 11" x 14", 2018

Since it's Women's History Month, I thought I would like to add another women to my series of STEM portraits. I'm also interested in adding more women of colour to my collection; if women in the history of science are too often invisible, this is doubly so for WOC, who of course have been granted fewer opportunities to participate in science, throughout history. It turns out that the earliest recorded woman in science was a woman of colour and one of the earliest known person in STEM at all. Merit Ptah ("beloved of [the god] Ptah") lived circa 2700 BCE and was chief physician of the pharoah's court, implying not only that she was recognized as a doctor, who attended the pharoah, but that she trained and supervised other doctors, during the Second or Third Dynasty of Ancient Egypt.

This image is the first to come up for a Google image
search of Merit Ptah, but that dude is wearing a kilt.
Very little is known about Merit Ptah. Her image and an inscription left on her grave by her son, a Chief Priest, is found in Saqqara in Egypt's Valley of Kings. He describes her as the Chief Physician. I don't believe there exist any other known text or images relating to her. So researching her and figuring out how I could portray her was a challenge. In fact, I have not been able to find the portrait of her which can be found in Saqqara - or at least, I can not find an image I am convinced is in fact actually her. Since she is regarded as the earliest known woman in STEM, there are many articles about her, but they all seem to repeat the information above and they are illustrated with unconvincing images. I try to be cautious, as a scientist, to check references, and I know that sometimes when scientists write the history of science, they make mistakes that historians might have avoided. (Occassionally I read history of science where the converse is true, and I wish authors either had more pertinent science training or worked with scientists in the field to identify questions to ask and answer... but suspect scientists who over-estimate their knowledge of history are more common).

This image, and ones like it, are often used to illustrate
articles about Merit Ptah. These authors have done better.
I think this is a woman named Merit Ptah, but the complexity 
of the New Kingdom carving, her elaborate hairdo and crown 
reveal her as the wife of Ramsose and not the physician who
lived a millenium earlier!
I care about the history of science and want to do it justice, and am aware I lack training in history, or in this case Egyptology... though I was helped by the fact that I happened to have taken an undergraduate course in Ancient Egyptian Religion! So, I did have a bit of general knowlege about ancient Egypt which helped me avoid some of the misinformation out there. The first thing that people often miss is that Ancient Egyptian civilization spans more than three and a half thousand years, and it cannot all be lumped together. One funny fact that I recalled was that Egyptologists are able to date an image of people by variations in hair styles; my professor showed us an image of members of a royal family of a certain era and pointed out that the pharoah's wife had the latest hair style while her mother-in-law was still sporting that of a bygone era! Plus ça change... So, knowing that Merit Ptah can be confused for another woman of the same name, Merit-Ptah, the wife of Ramose, the Governor of Thebes and Vizier under Akhenaten, a full millenium later, I knew to consider her hair and dress when looking at images purporting to be of the physician.

Like hair styles, fashion also evolved and gives us a clue to era. This is a bit harder for a non-specialist to identify, since the basics of Ancient Egyptian dress did remain pretty similar for thousands of years. Both women and men often sported long hair and wore kolh around their eyes. The well-known Egyptian eye was not just for fashion. It served as sound preventative medicine as it helped protect against infections of the eye like conjuctivitis. In general, men wore kilts and women wore shealth dresses and shawls. But even just knowing this fact makes me question an image many articles claim is a bas relief of Merit Ptah; I'm pretty sure it depicts a man!

So after spending a few fruitless days seeking a contemporary portrait of Merit Ptah, I decided my best bet was to research medicine and doctors in Ancient Egypt, related hieroglyphs and images of women from the Second Dynasty. I sought images of non-royal women of status as well as researching the history of fashion, so that I could produce a plausible portrait, if not her likeness.

I've selected to use hieroglyphs to indicate who is shown and her role. I have taken some artistic license and hope that this is reasonably accurate. Luckily for me, ancient Egyptians were not hung up on careful spelling and were pretty flexible in their use of hieroglyphics, so I hope that my combination gleaned from different sources is reasonably accurate. It's not hard to find the name of the god Ptah in hieroglyphs but I was unsure if I just needed to append "beloved". Luckily the French wikipedia has an entry for the given name Méryt-Ptah name here which includes the hieroglyphs I've printed horizontally. I have her title vertically. From what I've read, I inferred that the inscription about Merit Ptah likely read "wer swnwt per aa" where "wer" means chief and I believe can be indicated by the swallow, "swnwt" is the feminine form of doctor, indicated by the arrow, pot and half-circle (for the feminine -t suffix), and "per aa" means great house or palace (the sort of rectangle with a opening is house and the last irregular shape indicated great).
Some the earliest doctors recorded were moreorless contemporaries of Merit Ptah. Polymath Imhotep (late 27th century BCE) was ultimately deified and the Greeks identified him with their own god of medicine, Asklepios, so it is assumed he was a physician, though there is little hard evidence of this. Hesy-Ra (3rd Dynasty, 2687-2649 BCE) lived roughly the same time and is identified as both official and dentist. The fact that there were dentists at this time gives us a hint that there were already different medical specialists. Others include ophthalmologist, gastroenterologist, and proctologist; midwives were separate from doctors and all female.  There is a second female doctor of the Old Kingdom, whose name is preserved: Peseshet (5th Dynasty, 2465-2323, later than Merit Ptah), "lady overseer of the female physicians" is often also identified as the earliest known female doctor, though some argue she might have been an overseer without being a doctor (which strikes me a bending over backwards to be extra skeptical of women participating in science... surely Occam's Razor would favour the hypothesis that the overseer of doctors would be a doctor? Though I suppose a Minister of Health might be more of an administrator than a doctor). Ancient Egyptian society was quite hierarchichal and there were a variety of different titles and ranks for doctors, which cannot be easily sorted out or matched with our modern categories.

Did Ancient Egyptian medicine warrant the name? That is, was it scientific? Well, while doctors were often a special sort of priest, and much of their practice involved their religious beliefs and sympathetic magic, there was indeed many ways in which Ancient Egyptian medicine was quite advanced for the ancient world, and admired by people from contemporary civilizations. They had no concept of the germ theory of disease, but luckily cleanliness was demanded of the priestly class and Egyptians in general bathed and purified their bodies often, and shaved their body hair as a means to fend off disease. The word for doctor is swnw (or swnwt for a woman; the suffix -t makes a word feminin, the way -e can make the feminine form of a French word) and is sometimes simplified as just the arrow symbol, indicating that doctors were initially the arrow-pullers, the people who treated those injured in battle. Compassion for the suffering was an important moral consideration as they believed they would be judged on their morality through life when they reached the afterlife. Curing a patient would increase a doctor's standing but failing to do so was not viewed as a moral failing. Both surgery and prosthetics were part of ancient Egyptian medicine. There is a beautiful relief from the Temple of Kom Ombo showing surgical instruments, but this was made thousands of years after Merit Ptah's time. The oldest surgical tools discovered are from the 6th Dynasty. (I avoided showing Merit Ptah as a surgeon since the 6th Dynasty occurred about 300 years later.) The mummification and ritual autopsy of human and animal corpses meant that ancient Egyptians had an extensive understanding of anatomy and generally managed to correctly infer the roles of major organs (though famously not the brain). They did prescribe medicines (which helps document their treatments and ancient pharmaceuticals). They are known to have used 160 distinct plant products for their medicinal uses. I think this indicates enough overlap with our own ideas about science and medicine to call Merit Ptah the earliest recorded woman in STEM (and to depict her offering medicine).


Merit Ptah, wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018
Méryt-Ptah (médecin dans l'Égypte antique), wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018
27th-century BC women,  wikipedia entry accessed March, 201827th-century BC women, 
Ancient Egyptian Clothing,  wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018
Ancient Egyptian Costume History, Decoration and Coloring,  Costume and fashion history. Traditional Historical clothes, accessed March 2018
Tom Tierney, Ancient Egyptian Fashions, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover. p. 2. ISBN 9780486408064.
Ancient Egyptian Medicine, wikipedia entry accessed March 2018
Ancient Egyptian Medicine, from Ancient Egypt Online, accessed March, 2018
Aleksandrovna, J.O and Lvovna, M.G, The Social status of physicians in Ancient Egypt. Istoriya meditsiny (History of Medicine), 2015. Vol 2, No. 1, pp. 55-71.
Histoire de la médecine en Egypte ancienne, website accessed March, 2018
J.F. Nunn, The doctor in Ancient Egypt 
John F. Nunn, Ancient Egyptian Medicine, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002

Bruno Halioua, and Bernard Ziskind, Medicine in the Days of the Pharaohs, London Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2005. ISBN: 0674017021 9780674017023
H.W. Jansen, A History of Art, 3rd Edition, Harry N. Abrams, 1986

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