Ancient Egyptian records provide clues to ophthalmic care

February 15, 2006

Chronic trachoma was treated with oily or fatty ointments, which contained myrrh, resin, malachite, yellow ocher, and red natron.

Two revealing scrolls

Most of the medical information from this early period comes from two papyrus scrolls, each of which is named after its archaeological discoverer or the person who purchased it.

The Ebers papyrus was named after George Ebers, a German professor. In the late 1800s he obtained the 20-meter papyrus, which dates from approximately 1550 B.C. Today it is housed at the University of Leipzig. The other well-known one is the Edwin Smith papyrus, dating from approximately 1600 B.C., which can be found at the New York Academy of Medicine. The Edwin Smith papyrus is approximately 4.5 meters in length and thought to be a copied text that was originally made in 3000 B.C. Both of these scrolls provide insight into what the Egyptians knew during the period around 2000 B.C.

Chronic trachoma was most likely a serious disease of the period. Eye blurriness in both acute and chronic forms is mentioned in the Ebers papyrus. The condition was treated with oily or fatty ointments, which contained myrrh, resin, malachite, yellow ocher, and red natron. These treatments were used by Greek and Arab physicians later.

Leukoma or a white spot of the cornea was treated with a variety of animal galls, specifically that of the tortoise. Chalazion, or little grain, was treated with ointments. Pterygium and cataracts also were mentioned in both of these scrolls but there was no indication that surgery was ever considered in either of these disorders. Bending of the hairs of the lid (trichiasis) and eversion of the flesh (ectropion) involved pulling the hairs out of the lid margin when they became too long and injured the eye. Other remedies for lid disorders included sulfite of antimony and a variety of copper solutions. Milk, blood, urine, and animal excrements were also part of the ancient Egyptian pharmacopoeia.

Blindness was also depicted in Egyptian paintings and on monuments. It is well-known that blind musicians were admitted to the harems of kings and nobles. One of the most famous paintings of the blind from 1500 B.C. is that of a blind harpist with seven blind choral singers sitting behind him.

Blindness was a troublesome problem for the ancient Egyptians. Our search for curing vision-threatening diseases continues today.