Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Peseshet, Actual Earliest Named Woman in Science or Medicine, Ancient Egyptian Overseer of the Female Physicians


Linocut of Peseshet
Peseshet, Overseer of Physicians, linocut, 11" x 14" by Ele Willoughby, 2020

Ada Lovelace, 3rd edition
Ada, Countess Lovelace, 3rd edition linocut by Ele Willoughby


It is once again Ada Lovelace Day, the 12th annual international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology, science and math, Ada Lovelace Day 2019 (ALD19). I'm sure you'll all recall, Ada, brilliant proto-software engineer, daughter of absentee father, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Lord Byron, she was able to describe and conceptualize software for Charles Babbage's computing engine, before the concepts of software, hardware, or even Babbage's own machine existed! She foresaw that computers would be useful for more than mere number-crunching. For this she is rightly recognized as visionary - at least by those of us who know who she was. She figured out how to compute Bernouilli numbers with a Babbage analytical engine. Tragically, she died at only 36. Today, in Ada's name, people around the world are blogging.

You can find my previous Ada Lovelace Day posts here. 

One of the things that has become very clear, participating in a dozen years of Ada Lovelace events, is not only that there has long been a large collection of under-recognized women in the history of science and technology, who need to be written back into the story, but that there is a large appetite for these stories. Representation matters. Women in STEM and girls who love science and technology are seeking evidence of precedence (of foremothers in science). So much so, that scientists and amateur historians are themselves seeking out stories and evidence of women trailblazers. Thus, when Canadian feminist medical doctor Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead (1867 – 1941), likely made an innocent error, misinterpreting a report and conflating two people, she accidentally started the paper trail for an non-existent ancient woman in medicine: Merit Ptah, reputedly the earliest recorded woman in medicine and subject of one of my portraits. Hurd-Mead confused the Overseer of Healer Woman that did exist, Peseshet (5th Dynasty, 2465-2323 BCE), with a name, tomb location and date for someone a bit earlier, giving this conflation of people "Merit Ptah" priority. Thus "Merit Ptah" became a bit of a feminist hero, and for instance, The International Astronomical Union even named the impact crater Merit Ptah on Venus after her. While "Merit Ptah" was not what she appeared, the idea that women have played a role in science and medicine since ancient times is quite true. Specifically, there is hard evidence both that medicine in ancient Egypt was was quite advanced for the ancient world, and admired by people from contemporary civilizations and that women participated in this work. Physicians, even in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, while also often a sort of priest whose roll involved their religious beliefs and sympathetic magic, and quite different from our modern understanding of the role, did practise some things we would still recognize as science-based medicine. Specifically, we know Peseshet lived and worked as the Overseer of Women Physicians from a specifical inscription on her son's tomb.
Depiction of the Stela of the lady Peseshet from John F. Nunn, Acient Egyptian Medicine,
University of Oklahoma Press, 2002
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. The name Peseshet is shown with the arrow hieroglyph in three separate places in the tomb of her son Akhet-hotep, a royal official and overseer of priests, who lived during the 5th Dynasty around 2400 BCE, and had an elaborate tomb build in the necropolis at Saqqara. 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. 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. 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 Peseshet's time. The oldest surgical tools discovered are from the 6th Dynasty. 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.Some of the other earliest doctors recorded were moreorless contemporaries of Peseshet. 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 were all female.  I think this indicates enough overlap with our own ideas about science and medicine to legitimately recognize Peseshet as an ancient trailblazer and woman in STEM.
I think this animation is a bit speculative, as the inscription above are all the specifics about Peseshet's life, but it does help bring to life how the Ancient Egyptian doctors did do things we expect doctors to do, such as dispense medicines, study anatomy, keep records, study and teach existing medical knowledge, but also involved their religious beliefs and sympathetic magic.
I made this new portrait of Peseshet, adapting my previous portrait of "Merit Ptah". The hieroglyphs indicate who she is (in fuschia) 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. The rest of the hieroglyphs 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).
Jakub Kwiecinski, 'Merit Ptah, “The First Woman Physician”: Crafting of a Feminist History with an Ancient Egyptian Setting,' Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 75, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 83–106, https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/jrz058
Published: 22 November 2019 
Michelle Star, 'The Story of That Famous Female Physician From Ancient Egypt Is Actually Wrong, ' Science Alert, 17 DECEMBER 2019
John F. Nunn, Acient Egyptian Medicine, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002  
Merit Ptah, wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018 and October 2020
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
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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