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Ancient Egyptian Woman Believed to be World's First Female Doctor did not Exist, Study Says

posted on: Jan 12, 2020



Long thought to be the world’s first female doctor, Merit Ptah was believed to have lived in ancient Egypt nearly 5,000 years ago. A new study, however, suggests she never actually existed.

“Merit Ptah was everywhere. In online posts about women in STEM, in computer games, in popular history books, there’s even a crater on Venus named after her,” Jakub Kwiecinski, a medical historian and the study’s sole author, said in a statement. “And yet, with all these mentions, there was no proof that she really existed. It soon became clear that there had been no ancient Egyptian woman physician called Merit Ptah.”

Kwiecinski, who said he acted “almost like a detective,” went through various pieces of literature searching for proof that Ptah existed and found the first mention was in a book from 1938 published by Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, a medical historian, doctor and activist.

Ancient Egyptian Woman Believed to be World's First Female Doctor did not Exist, Study Says

(Credit: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus)

Hurd-Mead said the first female doctor was Ptah, giving detail how she lived in the book during the time of the “Old Kingdom,” which lasted from 2575 to 2150 B.C.

The book also discussed the excavation of a tomb in the Valley of Kings that specifically shows a “picture of a woman doctor named Merit Ptah, the mother of a high priest, who is calling her `the Chief Physician.’”

Except that Ptah was never listed as a healer, Kwiecinski stated.

“Merit Ptah as a name existed in the Old Kingdom, but does not appear in any of the collated lists of ancient Egyptian healers – not even as one of the `legendary’; or `controversial cases,” he added. “She is also absent from the list of Old Kingdom women administrators. No Old Kingdom tombs are present in the Valley of the Kings, where the story places Merit Ptah’s son, and only a handful of such tombs exist in the larger area, the Theban Necropolis.”

It may be that Hurd-Mead confused Ptah with another ancient Egyptian female, Peseshet, to whom she bore a resemblance. Between 1929 and 1930, a tomb of Akhethetep was discovered with a trap door depicting Peseshet, who was presumed to be the tomb owner’s mother, as the “overseer of healer women,” which may have led to the confusion.

“Unfortunately, Hurd-Mead in her own book accidentally mixed up the name of the ancient healer, as well as the date when she lived, and the location of the tomb,” Kwiecinski continued. “And so, from a misunderstood case of an authentic Egyptian woman healer, Peseshet, a seemingly earlier Merit Ptah, `the first woman physician’ was born.”

Kwiecinski said it demonstrates that incorrect historical accounts can be passed down easily, in this case, through “through amateur historian circles,” similar to how fake news stories are spread today.

“Finally, it was associated with an extremely emotional, partisan – but also deeply personal – issue of equal rights,” Kwiecinski said. “Altogether this created a perfect storm that propelled the story of Merit Ptah into being told over and over again.”

Despite the fact Ptah was likely not the world’s first female doctor, she is “a very real symbol of the 20th century feministic struggle to write women back into the history books, and to open medicine and STEM to women,” Kwiecinski added.