Celebrated ancient Egyptian woman physician likely never existed, says researcher

AURORA, Colo. (Dec. 16, 2019) – For years, an ancient Egyptian called Merit Ptah has actually been celebrated as the very first woman physician and a good example for ladies getting in medication. Yet a researcher from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus now says she never existed and is an example of how mistaken beliefs can spread out.

“Almost like a detective, I had to trace back her story, following every lead, to discover how it all began and who invented Merit Ptah,” stated Jakub Kwiecinski, PhD, a trainer in the Dept. of Immunology and Microbiology at the CU School of Medicine and a medical historian.

His research study was released recently in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.

Kwiecinski’s interest in Merit Ptah (`precious of god Ptah’) was triggered after seeing her name in numerous locations.

“Merit Ptah was everywhere. In online posts about women in STEM, in computer games, in popular history books, there’s even a crater on Venus named after her,” he stated. “And yet, with all these mentions, there was no proof that she really existed. It soon became clear that there had been no ancient Egyptian woman physician called Merit Ptah.”

Digging deep into the historic record, Kwiecinski found a case of incorrect identity that handled a life of its own, sustained by those excited for an inspiring story.

According to Kwiecinski, Merit Ptah the physician had her origins in the 1930s when Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, a medical historian, medical professional and activist, set out to compose a total history of medical ladies all over the world. Her book was released in 1938.

She spoke about the excavation of a burial place in the Valley of Kings where there was a “picture of a woman doctor named Merit Ptah, the mother of a high priest, who is calling her `the Chief Physician.'”

Kwiecinski stated there was no record of such an individual being a physician.

“Merit Ptah as a name existed in the Old Kingdom, but does not appear in any of the collated lists of ancient Egyptian healers – not even as one of the `legendary’; or `controversial cases,” he stated. “She is also absent from the list of Old Kingdom women administrators. No Old Kingdom tombs are present in the Valley of the Kings, where the story places Merit Ptah’s son, and only a handful of such tombs exist in the larger area, the Theban Necropolis.”

The Old Kingdom of Egypt lasted from 2575 to 2150 BC.

But there was another woman who bears a striking similarity to Merit Ptah. In 1929-30, an excavation in Giza discovered a burial place of Akhethetep, an Old Kingdom courtier. Inside, an incorrect door portrayed a woman called Peseshet, most likely the burial place owner’s mom, referred to as the `Overseer of Healer Women.’ Peseshet and Merit Ptah originated from the exact same period and were both pointed out in the burial places of their children who were high priestly authorities.

This discovery was explained in a number of books and among them discovered its method into Hurd-Mead’s personal library. Kwiecinski thinks Hurd-Mead puzzled Merit Ptah with Peseseth.

“Unfortunately, Hurd-Mead in her own book accidentally mixed up the name of the ancient healer, as well as the date when she lived, and the location of the tomb,” he stated. “And so, from a misunderstood case of an authentic Egyptian woman healer, Peseshet, a seemingly earlier Merit Ptah, `the first woman physician’ was born.”

The Merit Ptah story spread everywhere, driven by a range of forces. Kwiecinski stated one element was the popular understanding of ancient Egypt as a practically fairytale land “outside time and space” completely fit for the development of famous stories.

The story spread out through amateur historian circles, producing a sort of echo chamber not unlike how phony newspaper article flow today.

“Finally, it was associated with an extremely emotional, partisan – but also deeply personal – issue of equal rights,” he stated. “Altogether this created a perfect storm that propelled the story of Merit Ptah into being told over and over again.”

Yet Kwiecinski stated the most striking part of the story is not the error however the decision of generations of ladies historians to recuperate the forgotten history of female therapists, showing that science and medication have never been specifically male.

“So even though Merit Ptah is not an authentic ancient Egyptian woman healer,” he stated. “She is a very real symbol of the 20th century feministic struggle to write women back into the history books, and to open medicine and STEM to women.”




About the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus

The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is a first-rate medical location at the leading edge of transformative science, medication, education, and client care. The school includes the University of Colorado health expert schools, more than 60 centers and institutes, and 2 nationally ranked medical facilities that deal with more than 2 million adult and pediatric clients each year. Ingenious, interconnected and extremely collective, together we provide life-altering treatments, client care, expert training, and carry out world-renowned research study powered by more than $550 million in research study awards. To learn more, go to https://www.cuanschutz.edu/

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