Humans have been prone to parasitic infections since the appearance of our species - among them infections with helminths, that is: intestinal worms. But how were these infections perceived by civilizations that could not explain them as we can today? How were patients treated? Let’s look back at one of the first civilizations from which written medical records remain: Ancient Egypt.
1500 years before the beginning of the Christian era, and more than a thousand years before the well-known Greek physician Hippocrates, Egyptian physicians could fall back on extensive textbook knowledge: papyrus scrolls of more than 110 pages have survived to our age, describing known diseases and how to treat them. Indeed, this vast knowledge made Egyptian medicine acclaimed well across the Empire’s borders: historic records show that Egyptian physicians were famed in many other parts of the ancient world.
But what can these papyrus scrolls tell us today? Knowledge of the Egyptian writing system was completely lost from the early Christian period on. An incredible scientific effort and the discovery of the Rosetta stone rendered the rediscovery of the meaning of hieroglyphs possible – and thus enabled today’s historians to study papyri, among them medical texts such as the ones found in the Ebers Papyrus. This text is the longest of all preserved medical papyri, and most interesting for the study of parasitic worms, it contains a chapter on diseases of the stomach.
With such comprehensive medical records, it might seem that finding out about the Egyptians treatments for parasitic diseases should be easy – but indeed it is not. This is due to the limited understanding of the Ancient Egyptian language and the nature of the texts: they are meant for physicians, and are thus mostly structured in a general format: “If a patient suffers from WXY, you shall prepare for him XYZ”. The disease itself is only described by its Egyptian name, leaving the historian none the wiser. Luckily, some few writers included short descriptions of the symptoms, allowing an educated guess about the disease. Another helpful coincidence is the funeral culture of pharaonic Egypt: the embalming of the deceased preserved their bodies in a very good state, and sophisticated techniques such as radiography can then reveal details about the state of health of an individual living more than 3 millennia ago.
Inferring from the combined evidence of papyri and the study of human remains, historians today can draw a general picture of the state of health and disease in the ancient Nile Valley. It is clear that parasitic diseases were a major health problem in Egypt at that time – not even high-ranking clerics were safe from them, as the finding of filarial worms in the mummy of a high priest in the Temple at Karnak shows. The remains of a weaver boy who lived in 1200 BC were even diagnosed with three different parasites, among them a tapeworm. The medical papyri as well prove that parasitic worms were frequent in Ancient Egyptian society: the Ebers Papyrus mentions several types of worms – from the guinea worm to large intestinal worms presumed to belong to the Taenia genus - and describes recommended remedies.
Therapies in Ancient Egypt could vary greatly: sometimes a simple concoction from a fruit or root would suffice, in other cases dung from various animals, fat from cats, fly droppings and even cooked mice might be needed to cure the patient. If the disease was believed to be rather a curse or a bad spirit, the physician would resort to incantations or spells. In the case of parasites, it seems to have been known that embalmers ran a certain risk of contracting a tapeworm in the course of their work. Thus, in the Ebers Papyrus an incantation apparently intended to protect embalmers from this plague is described – this suggests that tapeworms might indeed have been perceived as a curse cast on a person. Nevertheless, Ancient Egyptian medicine also offered some more relatable forms of therapy against parasitic worms: the Ebers papyrus mentions the roots of the pomegranate tree, a plant that is recognised today for its anti-helminthic (worm-expelling) effect – a medical property that has thus evidentially been known to man for 3500 years.