Surgery in Ancient Egypt

Last week I blogged about how copper, known to the ancient Egyptians as a means of fighting infection, is being revived now as an antimicrobial agent in hospitals. The Egyptians were good at surgery as well. You were more likely to survive an amputation in that time and place than in Medieval Europe, because the Egyptians tied off the vessels to stop the patient from bleeding out. The Europeans cauterized the stump with hot irons, controlling bleeding but causing extensive tissue damage.

Ancient Egyptian prosthesisAncient Egyptian prosthetic toe

This leads me to an incident in The Stars in their Courses. In the ninth century BCE, my character Tamar is a medical student at a temple school in northern Egypt, and Wa’bet is her instructor:

A peasant trudged in, carrying his son on his back. Tamar guessed the boy was around fifteen. He was tall and slender, with a prominent nose like a steering oar in his narrow face. His lashes were long, his eyes dull with pain. His foot had been crushed between two uprooted trees. Splinters of bone protruded from the flesh; the sight made Tamar’s skin crawl.

“We can’t save it,” Wa’bet whispered. “We’ll have to take it off. Have you ever amputated a foot—?”

Tamar shook her head.

“Sometimes it works,” Wa’bet said. “Sometimes it doesn’t. If we don’t try, corruption will set in and kill him anyway.”

They sent the father to the main temple to pray and made the son drink wine. When Wa’bet judged that her patient was sufficiently inebriated, she asked three brawny men to hold his good limbs. Then she and Tamar tied the injured leg to a plank. “Watch and remember,” she exhorted her student, “because you’ll have to do it by yourself some day. Make sure the end of the plank is above where you’re going to make your incision. You want a clear view. Sit across his knee, just in case—don’t let him move around. When I cut one of the metu—”

“Metu?” Tamar asked.

“The long vessels,” Wa’bet explained. “The white ones don’t bleed, so you can ignore them. When I cut a red one, press down as hard as you can to stop the bleeding.”

The boy shrieked at the first cut and then lost consciousness. Tamar leaned all her weight into his calf while another assistant toweled away the blood so Wa’bet could see the red metu and tie them off. The world seemed to be going black. Tamar thought she would pass out so she shut her eyes, just for a moment, and then forced them open again. She made herself breathe deeply, slowly, while Wa’bet sawed through the bones, tucked the ends of all the metu, red and white, up inside the boy’s flesh, and sutured a skin flap around the stump. Together they wrapped it with linen, packing the bandage with lint, powdered pomegranate, and sage.

When they were done Tamar straightened her back and rolled her shoulders. She walked up and down a few times until her body stopped trembling.

They gave the amputated part to the father for proper burial.


2 Responses to Surgery in Ancient Egypt

  1. Mary Ann January 4, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

    I passed this on to my daughter who is a nurse. This is how they used to do it.

  2. Perry Brass June 2, 2020 at 8:27 am #

    What a spectacular piece of writing this is, Martha. I could barely read it I was so taken with its realism, and so moved by its descriptive powers. I don’t know how you managed to get so much information into so few words, and the words so poweerful. But you did.

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