In Europe, in the 19th century CE, an interesting device began appearing in graveyards and cemeteries: the mortsafe. This was an iron cage erected over a grave to keep the body of the deceased safe from ‘resurrectionists’ – better known as body-snatchers. These men would dig up freshly interred corpses and deliver them, for cash, to doctors wishing to study anatomy. Dissection of a human being was illegal at the time, and until the Anatomy Act of 1832 CE, the only corpses a doctor could work with were those who had been executed for capital crimes.
These did not provide physicians with the number of corpses, nor the assortment of causes of death, they required to better understand anatomy, physiology, and pathology. Doctors recognized that the best way to treat a patient was to understand how the organs of the body worked together and what could affect them, but they were denied access. These physicians paid the resurrectionists large sums of money over the years for dead bodies and would most likely have been surprised or even amused to learn that, in ancient Egypt, the practice of dissection was routine but that no one in the medical field of the time thought to take advantage of it.
The ancient Egyptian embalmers did not discuss their work with the doctors of the time, and the doctors never seem to have given a thought to inquire of the embalmers. Physicians in Egypt healed their patients through spells, practical medical techniques, incantations, and the use of herbs and other naturally occurring substances. Their understanding of anatomy and physiology was weak because although Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE) had argued that disease could be naturally occurring in his treatises, the prevailing understanding was that it was due to supernatural elements. A study of internal medicine, therefore, would have been considered a waste of time because sickness came to a person from external sources.
The Nature of Disease
Until the 19th century CE, the world had no understanding of germ theory. The work of Louis Pasteur, later confirmed by British surgeon Joseph Lister, proved that illness is caused by bacteria and steps can be taken to minimize one’s risks. The ancient Egyptians, like every other civilization, had no such understanding. Disease was thought to be caused by the will of the gods (to punish sin or teach one a lesson), through the agency of an evil spirit or spirits, or brought on by the presence of a ghost.
Even in cases where a diagnosis suggested some definite physical cause for a problem, such as liver disease for example, this was still thought to have a supernatural origin. Egyptian medical texts recognize liver disease but not the function of the liver. In this same way, doctors understood the function of the uterus but not how it worked nor even its connection to the rest of a woman’s body; they believed it was an organ with access to every other part of the body. The heart was considered the seat of intellect, emotion, and personality while the brain was believed to be useless, even though there are documented cases of brain surgery. It was understood that the heart was a pump and that veins and arteries moved blood through the body, and heart disease was diagnosed and treated by measures recognizable today (such as changing one’s diet), but the root cause of the disease was still thought to come from supernatural agencies.