Compounding Corner – March 2017
Let’s learn some facts about the history of pharmacy and pharmaceutical preparations from the time of the Pharaohs of Egypt!
The origin of Egyptian medicine dates from a long time ago, about 2900 B.C. Medicine in the pharaonic times was mixed with magic and was used together with many rituals, spells and charms of all kind. Disease was often believed to have been sent by the Gods as a punishment, or by evil spirits.
One of the most remarkable records of pharmacy practices includes the Ebers Papyrus, dating from 1500 B.C. This papyrus is a 110-page scroll, which is about 20 meter long, and is currently kept at the library of the University of Leipzig, in Germany! We can think of it as a modern formula book with a collection of around 800 prescriptions together with formulated prayers and incantations. It’s amazing to see that Egyptian pharmacopoeia was quite advanced with the third of current medicinal plants already figuring in this document. Many herbal drugs were used for the same purposes as today, including opium, cannabis, myrrh, frankincense, castor oil, fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, linseed, aloe, garlic, coriander, cumin and many others.
Besides the vegetable products, many mineral compounds were in general use such as iron, lead, magnesia, common salt, niter or even finely powdered precious stones like emeralds and sapphires. Animal drugs were also used and some of them were unusual, including lizard’s blood, swine’s teeth, meat and fat of all sort of animals, human and goat milk, various excreta of human beings, donkeys, dogs and cats for instance.
Ancient Egyptians were familiar with numerous medicinal products and various forms of preparation. They could supply medicaments in the form of infusions, decoctions, inhalations, powders, pills, suppositories, creams, pastes, ointments, etc. Oral route was the most common route of drug administration, others include rectal, vaginal, external application and fumigation. This latter was often prescribed and assumed to be a means of curing gynaecological disorders. It involved producing fumes from a medicated solution that could then enter woman’s body through the vagina.
Formulations were characterized by the active ingredient, a vehicle in which it was carried, flavoring and a demulcent – a substance soothing irritated mucous membranes in the mouth by forming a protective film – or, possibly, a secondary drug. The most common vehicle for medicines was water, but also honey, milk, oil, wine and beer. However, all of them could well have been considered active drugs in their own, particularly honey. In many cases, the active drug in herbal preparation is an alkaloid (e.g., atropine, nicotine, quinine and morphine) which is best extracted with alcohol. Wine or beer would have provided the strongest concentration of alcohol available in ancient Egypt, also they would have been a pleasant ingredient to offset other disagreeable components. The herbs soaked in wine could be drunk as an oral medicine.
Instructions for preparation were specific, affording reproducibility. During the preparation of medicines and also before their use, special forms of prayer could be spoken. Drugs could be ground, sieved, powdered or infused in water, alcohol or fat. The drug part – leaf, seed, fruit, root, bark, juice or resin – was specified indicating concept of pharmacognosy. Some evidence shows that pharmacy in ancient Egypt was conducted by a “head pharmacist” directing compounding activities to “preparers of drugs” in the temple drug room. The Egyptians used mortars of wood or stone, and used containers of pottery and glass for compounding. Weights were very seldom used in the preparation of remedies. Capacity measurement was based on a standard volume. The smallest medicinally used unit, the ro, had a value of approximately 15 ml. However, because of varying drug levels in any plant, this means that no two recipes would have had the same efficacy, even if equal quantities were used.
Here is one last fun fact that might change how you see the symbol ‘℞’! Did you know that one theory about the origin of this symbol currently representing a medical prescription in many parts of the world can goes back to Egyptian times? There is a hint of connections with the Egyptian symbol known as Eye of Horus that used to be drawn by the ancient Egyptians as a magic sign to protect themselves from disease, suffering and evil. It was painted on the papyrus rolls used for writing about medicine and doctors.
Egyptian pharmacy definitely exerted a tremendous influence on the pharmaceutical practice of our current world!
- Nunn, J.F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002)
- David, R. Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science. (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
- Carpenter, S. et al. The Ebers Papyrus. (1998)
- Van Becelaere J. Pharmacy of the Ancient Egyptians: A Translation from the Esperanto. (California and western medicine, 1929)