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Merit-Ptah: First Female Physician or Myth?

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Nearly 5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt, around 2700 BCE1, Merit-Ptah lived as the first woman doctor. Female leaders are found throughout Egyptian history; deities such as Hathor, Ma’at, and Sekhmet and political leaders like Cleopatra. Unlike in Greece and Rome, women in Egypt had equal rights. According to Massive Science, “they [women] could own land, businesses, wear whatever they wanted, divorce their husbands, and hold powerful social positions (Freund, 2020).”

All of this makes it plausible that Merit-Ptah could have been the first recorded female physician. But did she even exist?

Let’s fast forward to the first time Merit-Ptah’s name surfaced in 19381. Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead was a feminist and obstetrician who promoted the role of women in Medicine. Because of her dedication to creating an equal playing field for women, she wrote A History of Women in Medicine: From the Earliest of Times to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1938. Yes, the same year that Merit-Ptah became known to the world. As a result, the story of Merit-Ptah became a beacon of hope for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Maths, and Engineering). The world was changing during this time, and with that, the role of women in society changed as well. Merit-Ptah became a household name and appeared in articles and books over the next few decades.

The question around Merit-Ptah’s existence came about in 2019 when “microbiologist and medical historian Jakub Kwiecinski published an article in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences debunking the myth… (Freund, 2020).” Merit-Ptah appeared in articles and books, but Kwiecinski noted that there was little to prove she existed. When looking for proof of her existence, he discovered that “Merit Ptah as a name existed in the Old Kingdom, but doesn’t appear in any of the collated lists of ancient Egyptian healers – not even as one of the ‘legendary’ or ‘controversial’ cases (Starr, 2019).” So, why did Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead write about a female doctor in Egypt if she didn’t exist?

The truth is, she did exist; however, it appears there was a mix-up when Hurd-Mead did her research. Kwiecinski found another female doctor with details that match Merit-Ptah except in name. According to Science Alert, “her name was Pesehet, and we know about her because she is described in the tomb of Akhethotep – her son.” Kwiecinski put together that Hurd-Mead mixed up the names in her book or “confused Peseshet with the wife of the vizier Ramose, who lived around 1350 and was buried in the Valley of the Kings. Her name was Merit Ptah (Starr, 2019).”

While Merit-Ptah may have been a myth, as we know her, that does not lessen her impact. Her popularity directly reflects the need for women to feel equal to men in STEM fields. She would remain an inspiration for women – even if she didn’t exactly exist. Kwiecinski says, “she is a very real symbol of the 20th century feministic struggle to write women back into history books, and to open medicine and STEM to women (Freund, 2020).”

 

 

Further Reading: 

  1. Freund, Cassie. “Meet Merit-Ptah, the ancient Egyptian doctor who didn’t exist.” Massive Science, 11 August 2020, massivesci.com/articles/merit-ptah-egypt-physician-doctor/
  2. “Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead.” Wikipedia, 23 July 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Campbell_Hurd-Mead
  3. Starr, Michelle. “The Story of That Famous Female Physician From Ancient Egypt Is Actually Wrong.” Science Alert,17 December 2019, www.sciencealert.com/this-ancient-egyptian-physician-has-been-a-figurehead-for-women-in-stem-one-problem-she-never-existed

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