The moniker, “father of modern medicine,” usually goes to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. However, there is another man who predates him by nearly 2,000 years who may deserve that title even more.
That man is Imhotep. He was a multi-talented ancient Egyptian who was behind some of the greatest innovations of Egypt’s Old Kingdom.
From designing the first stone pyramid to serving as the pharaoh’s right-hand man, Imhotep was far more than just a doctor. But out of all of his achievements, it’s his scientific approach to medicine that made him a revered figure among the Egyptians.
In this article, you’ll learn about the genius of Imhotep, his importance to Egyptian society, and why he may be the true “father of modern medicine.”
Who Was Imhotep?
Imhotep was born around 2700 BC. He quickly rose from his position as a commoner and eventually occupied some of the most important positions within Egyptian society.
Under the pharaoh Djoser, Imhotep gained many titles, including “Seal Bearer of Lower Egypt,” “First after the King of Upper Egypt,” and “Hereditary Lord,” just to name a few.
There is very little that we know for certain about Imhotep’s early life, and he may have been born a noble. But no matter what his original social status was, it was his many talents that set him apart.
Within the flexible structure of ancient Egyptian society, he was able to gain the trust of Djoser, who made him a trusted advisor.
His first position was probably as a priest to the sun god, Ra, whose temple was located in what was then the capital of Egypt, Heliopolis.
Aside from his religious duties, Imhotep served Djoser as his vizier, an advisor who was entrusted with making important governmental decisions related to everything from the economy to law.
Imhotep had a lot of responsibilities. But it is probably through his work as an architect that most people today recognize his contributions.
Imhotep: the Master Architect
Unlike many other civilizations of the time, the pharaohs of Egypt were considered to be gods residing in mortal bodies. When a pharaoh died, their immortal spirit, or Ka, was said to pass on to the afterlife.
This made royal burials extremely important. It also explains why the early pharaohs poured so much of their resources into creating the magnificent pyramids that housed their bodies.
Before Djoser, the pharaohs typically were housed in rectangular tombs. These featured a large burial chamber and several rooms where the pharaoh’s possessions could be stored for the journey to the afterlife.
The burial chamber was carved deep into bedrock and covered by a rectangular building constructed out of mud bricks. These structures, known as mastabas, worked well to shield the pharaoh’s body from the sand.
But they could only be built so high. Djoser knew that a typical mastaba wouldn’t be large enough to hold everything that he planned to bring with him to the afterlife. He instructed his best architect to come up with a new design for him.
That design would come to be one of the most iconic symbols of Egypt.
Imhotep: Creator of Egypt’s Great Stone Pyramids
Before Djoser instructed Imhotep to build him a royal tomb, stone was used minimally in architecture and was always mixed with mud.
Typical ancient Egyptian houses and buildings used a mix of mud bricks and reeds or wood. But considering the scale of what Djoser was asking for, Imhotep knew that he would have to break with tradition and use a brand-new technique.
For Djoser’s grand project, the burial chamber and accompanying rooms were built the same way that they had always been built. But instead, the mastaba that covered them was something entirely new.
Imhotep built the pyramid in stages. With each successive stage, he decided on a new and grander extension that made the tomb even more impressive.
By the time he was done, the so-called Step Pyramid was towering at 202 feet high and dominated the skyline around Saqqara, a plateau just west of Memphis. Not only had Imhotep created an impressive royal tomb, but he also developed a brand new architectural style that was copied throughout the succeeding centuries.
But as celebrated as Imhotep was for his building skills, Egyptians cherished him even more as a healer. In fact, in later millennia he became deified as a god of healing. Egyptians believed that if Imhotep came to them in their dreams it was a sign that they would be cured of whatever was ailing them.
But Imhotep was no mere mystic. He was a scientist who took a systematic approach to medicine. He diligently recorded his observations and compiled them in a document that would be discovered over a thousand years after his death.
That document, the only one we have that’s attributed to Imhotep, reveals how innovative this ancient genius was.
Imhotep’s Modern Approach to Medicine
This document is known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus. It’s the scroll on which Imhotep recorded some of his most important scientific findings. It included methods for how to diagnose and treat over 48 different injuries.
Mostly confined to injuries that a man would sustain either in battle or while doing construction, these observations are nonetheless extraordinary for their precision and objectivity.
This was a time when magic spells were still widely used to treat all kinds of diseases (even Imhotep used spells in some cases). Yet, the notes recorded in the Edwin Smith papyrus sound surprisingly modern. Just take this sentence about paralysis, for example:
“… it is a dislocation of a vertebra of the back of his neck extending to his thoracic spine, that causes him to be unaware of both his arms and his legs.”Edwin Smith Papyrus
This clearly shows that Imhotep already recognized the important role that the spinal column plays in motor functions. Moreover, he categorized each patient into different cases: “I intend to fight with,” “I can heal,” and in some cases, “that cannot be healed.”
All told, the document contains over 100 medical terms, including the first mention of the “brain.”
Imhotep: The True Father of Modern Medicine?
Sometime between 664 and 525 BC, the first temple to Imhotep was established. This was possibly built at the behest of Greek immigrants who saw several parallels between Imhotep and their god of healing, Asclepius.
From that moment on, Greeks in Egypt began to associate Asclepius with Imouthe (the Greek name for Imhotep) and worshiped in his temples.
Over the subsequent centuries, Imhotep’s fame continued to grow throughout Egypt.
He was linked not only to the god Ptah, the creator, but also to Thoth, the divine wizard, and Hathor, the goddess of childbirth. Pilgrims came from all over Egypt to worship at his temples and even included him in their prayers.
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, it did nothing to diminish Imhotep’s fame. His life story – that of a commoner rising to positions of power – served as an inspiration to many who saw in him proof that upward mobility was possible for anyone, no matter what their original station in life.
As temple after temple was dedicated in Imhotep’s honor, and as his divine status grew, the cult of Imhotep became a central part of the religious lives of many Egyptians.
But does Imhotep’s deification mean that he should be considered the “father of modern medicine”? Some scholars argue that despite being worshiped as a god of medicine, his role as a physician might have been minimal.
For one thing, although priests such as Imhotep were known for their ability to heal, his name was never associated with the position of a physician as some of his contemporaries were.
Second, although the Edwin Smith papyrus was linked to Imhotep, it was written centuries after Imhotep died. Most scholars agree that it was probably copied from an earlier text written by Imhotep himself, but as far as we know, that text no longer exists.
Taking all of this into consideration, how can we know who was the true “father of modern medicine”?
Imhotep vs. Hippocrates
The lack of historical evidence is probably why Hippocrates, and not Imhotep, is remembered as the “father of modern medicine.” While the evidence we have regarding Imhotep is limited to a single text, scholars have access to sixty medical treatises linked to Hippocrates.
Moreover, these treatises cover many more injuries and diseases compared to the Edwin Smith Papyrus, including diseases affecting women, tips on childbirth, and even pediatric medicine.
Still, many of the writings published under Hippocrates’ name were not written by him.
While they all share a similar way of approaching and describing medicine, the fact is that some of the writings attributed to the great physician were no doubt written much later.
In addition, even the writings of Hippocrates himself drew on earlier works of the Classical period. They also relied on treatments that may have originated in Egypt.
While none of this changes the fact that Hippocrates was an influential physician during his time, it’s worth remembering that his work did not arise out of a vacuum. It was built on the discoveries of others, many of whom have been lost to history.
Whether or not Hippocrates or Imhotep truly deserve the title of “father of modern medicine,” we should at least acknowledge where these geniuses came from and where the line between myth and reality lies.