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Polymath of Humanity and Egypt

“We must come to the land of the Nile for the origin of many of man’s most distinctive and highly cherished beliefs,” Sir William Osler.

This quote was said to pay attention to the contributions of the Egyptian scientist Imhotep in medical caring and medicinal healing.

The man who is considered by historians to be humanity’s first polymath was a physician, astronomer, engineer, theologian, sage, vizier and chief minister of the Egyptian king Djoser, the second king of Egypt’s 3rd dynasty.

This humanoid dawning star of science is believed to have been born in Memphis (aka Mn Nefer in the ancient Egyptian Language) which is located near the town of Mit Rahina, about 20 km south of the modern Egyptian capital city of Cairo.

Imhotep lived during the 27th century BC and historians believe that his father Kanofer was an architect; maybe this clarifies a little bit how this great Egyptian mind grew up to be a genius engineer.

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Commemorating his brilliant achievements and acknowledging his scientific excellence, in 1976 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named one of Mercury’s craters after Imhotep.

Imhotep Crater on planet Mercury has a diameter of 159 kilometers and is located at the following coordinates: 18.1°S (South) 37.3°W (West).

Great PhysicianImhotep

Though being established very early on the timeline of humanity, the Egyptian society was an intellectual-dense population that was full of scholars unlike the biggest majority of other human societies which were still living as uncivilized hunters and primitive gatherers.

Despite the fact that Imhotep is considered by archeologists to be Planet Earth’s first polymath, yet some historians inform us that there were two other Egyptian physicians, Hesy-Ra and Merit-Ptah, who lived around the same time of Imhotep and are considered as the earliest doctors too; especially Merit Ptah who is most notable for being the first woman known in the history of the field of medicine, and the first named woman in all of science as well.

Imhotep’s reputation as a great biologist and surgeon wasn’t derived solely from his precedence, but he was highly respected among his Egyptian people and dignified among modern scientists and scholars because of his medical skills too.

According to modern archeologists, this Egyptian doctor wasn’t only successful in diagnosing but also in treating over 200 diseases; some of them were categorized as 29 treated ophthalmological illnesses, 18 dermatological, hair, nails and tongue sicknesses, 15 abdominal ailments, 11 in the bladder, and ten in the rectum.

Archeological evidences and historical documents show us as well that he was a knowledgeable practitioner of dentistry.

Imhotep’s methodology of the medical treatment of aliments was based upon surgeries or treating with extracted drugs and chemicals from living organisms found in the generous flora and fauna of the Egyptian environment.

Imhotep has also treated gallstones, appendicitis, gout, arthritis and tuberculosis. Moreover, he studied and knew the anatomy and physiology of some human body organs as well the circulating system of the blood.

For a man who was living with the technology of the 3rd millennium BC, no doubt that this genius is an incomparable polymath.

The rational and scientific Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus which was quietly been attributed to Imhotep sheds some light on the field of medicine and healthcare in Egypt during these glorious ancient times.

Forty-eight cases are documented in that medical papyrus including 27 injuries in the head, five injuries in the neck, three injuries in the upper arm and eight injuries in the chest.

In case 29 in the papyrus, the patient suffered a cervical stab wound, perforating a vertebra (knife wound in a vertebra in the back of his neck), and diagnosis: a wound in the flesh of the back of his neck, penetrating to the bone and perforating the bone of a vertebra.

Fortunately, Imhotep was known for his strong will and insistence, two necessary characteristics required for the personalities of great scientists. He didn’t give up from this distorted injury and said “I intend to fight with”.

Astoundingly, Imhotep has also introduced a technique of mummification and provided a practice of removing the internal organs of the dead during mummification to be kept in special containers; in order to prevent these organs from decay or causing the body to rot.

Brilliant Engineer

ImhotepImhotep stood out from the mists of antiquity because his practices were unlike others of his era. One of his most magnificent engineering achievements was designing and architecting the internationally unique Step Pyramid of Saqqara (aka Kbhw Netrw in the ancient Egyptian Language).

Saqqara Step Pyramid is most astonishing because it is Egypt’s first pyramid. Imhotep’s design and the Egyptian builders’ construction are unbelievably efficient and strong that the building is still standing till the moment at 62 meters tall.

This astounding structure is now aged 4,662 years!

Saqqara Step Pyramid of the Egyptian king Djoser, with a base of 109 m × 125 m, is considered to be the earliest large-scale cut stone construction on Earth, although the nearby enclosure known as Gisr El-Mudir of the Egyptian king Kha-Sekhemwy –the last king of the 2nd Egyptian Dynasty–  would seem to predate the well-built complex.

At the time of its completion, the Step Pyramid was the largest and the tallest building ever constructed by humans on Planet Earth, representing a sophisticated and dramatic leap in architectural scale and style initiated by Imhotep who excelled in incalculable sciences including geometry.

During the reign of king Djoser, the country was struck by a seven-year drought, but a nation which has citizens like Imhotep shouldn’t worry.

The genius Egyptian engineer developed a new irrigation system which shored up water from the shrinking and decreasing Nile River to the green fields on its banks.

Science has made it clear that Imhotep the Polymath wasn’t Prophet Joseph as some Jews like to claim; given that Imhotep lived around (c. 2650–2600 BC), while Prophet Joseph is estimated to have lived in a totally different era in the 16thcentury BC, about eleven centuries after Imhotep.

Imhotep wasn’t also a Negroid or Bantoid like some Black Americans claim since archeoanthropologists and Ancient Egyptian documents provide evidences that this Egyptian man was like the majority of Egyptians coming from the North African Hamitic Mediterranean Caucasoid descent.

“Egypt became a center from which civilization spread to the other peoples in the Mediterranean because of his moral awakening and his engagement of social justice and the recognition of the rights of individual,” Osler was quoted referring to Imhotep.

With regards to all his breakthroughs, Imhotep has conspicuously left a scientific heritage in which all his Egyptians descendants specifically and humans generally shall be proud of.


1-    Osler W. The Silliman Foundation of modern medicine: a series of lectures delivered at Yale University on the Silliman Foundation in April 1913. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 1921.

2-    Imhotep, Doctor, Architect, High Priest, Scribe and Vizier to King Djoser, Tour Egypt, 1996-2013, retrieved from

3-    Brandt-Rauf, P.W., Brandt-Rauf, S.I., 1987. History of occupational medicine: relevance of Imhotep and the Edwin Smith papyrus. British journal of industrial medicine 44, 68-70.

4-    Van Middendorp, J.J., Sanchez, G.M., Burridge, A.L., 2010. The Edwin Smith papyrus: a clinical reappraisal of the oldest known document on spinal injuries. European spine journal: official publication of the European Spine Society, the European Spinal Deformity Society, and the European Section of the Cervical Spine Research Society 19, 1815-1823.

About Lamia Mostafa Elsayed Abo-Elkhear
Lamia Mostafa Elsayed Abo-Elkhear graduated in 2008 from Zoology Department of the Faculty of Science at Tanta University. She finished a diploma in Biochemistry and Physiology at the Faculty of Science, Suez University in 2013. She received her masters' degree in Immunology at the Faculty of Science, Tanta University in 2015. And she's currently a Ph.D. student of Biology at the Zoology Department of the Faculty of Science at Tanta University.The Egyptian biologist is a volunteer at the Public Relations Department of Egypt Scholars Inc. and she works as a Medical Representative at Sigma Pharmaceuticals Company, Egypt.