Copper, Germs, and Ancient Egypt

In the process of writing historical fiction, the challenge is often to integrate research about the period into a story that captivates the reader. In my novel The Throne in the Heart of the Sea and its sequel, The Stars in their Courses, one of my characters becomes a physician, so I first had to learn what I could about medical practice in the 9th Century BCE. This made it possible for me to write passages about that character’s work in her equivalent of the E.R., or making a house call, or in labor and delivery.

Ancient_Egyptian_medical_instruments Ancient Egyptian Medical Instruments

What surprised me was finding out how much the physicians in ancient Egypt knew. For example, just this week I came across an article that describes how copper kills all kinds of microbes: bacteria, viruses, and yeasts. They can’t live very long on copper surfaces. The ancients didn’t have microscopes—those were an 18th Century invention—so they couldn’t see the bugs, but they knew what worked. The Smith Papyrus, written in Egypt between 4600 to 4200 years ago, recommends copper to sterilize chest wounds and drinking water. The Greeks learned medicine from the Egyptians; the Romans learned from the Greeks. Copper was prescribed for a variety of conditions, and for general hygiene. (The Aztecs also discovered this use of copper, quite separately. So did Mongolian nomads.)

Unfortunately, much medical knowledge was lost during what we call the Dark Ages, specifically in Medieval Europe. Eventually, in the 19th Century (my great-grandparents’ time), the germ theory of disease was established, and Europeans began to employ copper in medicine again.

When antibiotics were developed, copper fell out of use. However, as we all know, antibiotics have been over-prescribed and the bugs developed resistance—but they don’t develop resistance to copper. So doctors are experimenting with this metal once more, as anti-microbial surfaces in medical facilities: bedrails, door handles, food tray tables, and bathroom fixtures. Copper is expensive, but lots cheaper than treating the one in 25 patients who acquire infections in the hospital these days.

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