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Wandering wombs and wicked water – women’s complaints and their treatment

By news editor, on 12 March 2012

This evening event to mark International Women’s Day was held in the UCL Petrie Museum and was remarkably well-attended.

Dr Carole Reeves from the UCL Centre for the History of Medicine delivered an insightful talk, helpfully leaving plenty of time at the end for some engaging questions from the interested audience.

The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus is the oldest known medical text, dating from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (2025-1700 BC) and was used as the basis for the talk.

Dr Reeves used this historical artefact to discuss some of the similarities between complaints in women today and in the ancient world, but also examining the differences in how these problems were perceived and treated.

The Kahun Medical Papyrus was found by Flinders Petrie in 1889, and dates to about 2000 BC. The Papyrus consists of only three pages and is preserved in the Petrie Museum.

Since its discovery, the Papyrus has been translated by multiple people; Dr Reeves clarified that she would be referring specifically to a translation by Professor Stephen Quirke, Curator and Lecturer at the Petrie Museum.

The well-structured talk continued by quoting extracts from the Papyrus itself, followed by analysis of each. Dr Reeves reiterated the idea that in order to consider this artefact historically, it was important that the audience forget everything they knew about medicine and illness.

“Examination of a woman who is ill from her womb wandering…”

The ancient womb was not considered a static organ; instead it was thought to move around causing ailments. This concept was, in fact, also common in the western world until the 18th century.

Interestingly, the Greek word for womb – hustera – gives us the term hysteria. A stereotypically female form of emotional instability, thought to be caused by the wandering womb.

“Examination of a woman aching in her teeth and molars…it is toothache of the womb”

It is known from examining many skulls that Egyptians must have suffered from toothache. Disorders of all kinds, in women, were commonly attributed to a disorder of the womb.

The suggested treatments were tailored accordingly, with the majority ignoring the site of the disorder and treating instead the cause – the womb. Toothache of the womb, for example, would come with a recommendation to fumigate the womb with incense and fresh oil.

“Examination of a woman in her front, her womb, the circuit of her womb between her buttocks. You should say of it ‘large birth swelling’. You should treat it with 1 jug of fresh oil”

The Papyrus does not simply examine disorders caused by the womb, but also provided information on pregnancy and birth. This is likely referring to the swelling in the perineum just before the baby’s head ‘crowns’.

Applying oil to the area could help ease the passage of the head out of the birth canal. At the very least, the oil would soften the mother’s skin to minimise damage and tearing.

“Examination of a woman aching in her urine. You should say of it ‘it is discharges of the womb’. You should treat it with beans, plants. Grind, refine with 1 jar of beer. Boil, drink on four mornings”

Dr Reeves wondered whether this was relating to cases of cystitis or bladder infections, which would cause a burning sensation when urine was passed. Such disorders are more common in females than males due to a shorter urethra.

The idea of increasing fluid consumption for four days could well have helped to flush out an infection.

“Examination of a woman bed-bound, not stretching when she shakes it. You should say of it ‘it is clenches of the womb’. You should treat it by having her drink two jugs of beverage and have her spew it up at once”

This was one of the less clear statements in Dr Reeves’ opinion. She suggested that although “clenches of the womb” may seem to link to labour contractions or period pains, it might not be this straightforward. The disorder could in fact be colic, or problems with the gut being attributed to the womb.

Furthermore, Dr Reeves admitted that she was at a loss to interpret the quote, “not stretching when she shakes it”. A reinterpretation was suggested: “not retching when she shakes it”.

There was a belief that certain substances had to be expelled from the body, totally and as quickly as possible. In instances where the body did not naturally expel such substances, strong laxatives or emetics were used.

Dr Reeves concluded the talk by expressing the hope that she had offered some insight into the lives of women in Ancient Egypt as a way of celebrating International Women’s Day.

By Jessica Lowrie, intern in UCL Communications & Marketing

Images: Extract from the Kahun Medical Papyrus and Egyptian engraving depicting childbirth.

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