Many histories of medicine designate the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates (c. 460–c. 375 BC) the father of medicine. But more than 2,000 years before his birth, an Egyptian architect and priest, Imhotep, devised treatments for dozens of illnesses ranging from tuberculosis to toothaches to arthritis.
Indeed, Imhotep, who lived in Egypt in about 2650 BC, is believed to have been the first doctor whose name is known to history. A top official for the pharaoh Djoser, Imhotep documented hundreds of diseases and was such an expert healer that he was venerated as a god for thousands of years after his death.
As the pharaoh’s architect, Imhotep also designed and built the first Egyptian pyramid, a 200-foot-tall, terraced structure that served as Djoser’s burial site. One of the first large-scale buildings ever constructed, the step pyramid still stands just south of modern Cairo. Imhotep was born a commoner, but he was elevated to high priest of the temple at Heliopolis, the Egyptian religious capital. He was later promoted to vizier, or chancellor, to the pharaoh—the king’s most powerful advisor.
Imhotep’s medical treatises, believed to have been inscribed on papyrus scrolls, are thought to have been among the first attempts to separate medically sound healing practices from superstition, and they would be passed on and recopied for generations after Imhotep’s death. He offered cures for hundreds of diseases; for instance, the Egyptians believed wounds could be treated with honey, celery helped alleviate rheumatism, and aloe could soothe skin conditions. Some of the cures have been confirmed by modern researchers, including his recommendation to use the acacia plant to relieve cold symptoms.
In the centuries after his death, Imhotep came to be worshipped for his healing powers, and he was formally recognized as a god in the Egyptian pantheon in 525 BC.
- Imhotep achieved new fame in 1932 when he served as the loose inspiration for the 1932 horror movie The Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff (1887–1969) as “Im-ho-tep,” who returns from the dead to search for his long-lost love. The movie was remade in 1999, with Arnold Vosloo (1962–) as the high priest.
- Imhotep’s name means “The One Who Comes in Peace” in ancient Egyptian.
- The step pyramid designed by Imhotep served as the model for the bigger and better-known Great Pyramid at Giza, which was constructed about 100 years later as the tomb of the pharaoh Khufu (c. 2609–c. 2566 BC). That pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost 4,000 years, until it was surpassed by medieval European cathedrals