An Ancient Egyptian Physician Cited As the 'First Woman Doctor' Likely Never Existed

Merit Ptah is often cited as the first woman doctor, but new findings suggest she never existed.
Merit Ptah is often cited as the first woman doctor, but new findings suggest she never existed. (Image credit: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus)

Merit Ptah was an ancient Egyptian physician, often revered as the world's first female doctor. She was thought to live nearly 5,000 years ago...but she likely never existed, according to new findings.

"Merit Ptah was everywhere," from online posts about women in STEM and popular history books to computer games, Jakub Kwiecinski, a medical historian and instructor at the University of Colorado's School of Medicine, said in a UC statement. "And yet, with all these mentions, there was no proof that she really existed."

So Kwiecinski spent some time searching through literature, looking for any such proof. He traced the first mention of Merit Ptah to a 1938 book describing the history of women in medicine around the world, written by medical historian, doctor and activist Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead.

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In her book, she identified the first woman doctor as Merit Ptah, and described how she lived during the fifth dynasty of Egypt's "Old Kingdom," or about 2730 B.C., and who was the mother of a high priest who was buried in the Valley of the Kings — an area on the western bank of the Nile where many pharaohs and important Egyptian nobles were given elaborate burials.

Inside this high priest's tomb was a picture and tablet that described the high priest's mother, Merit Ptah, as "the Chief Physician," Hurd-Mead wrote. But the burial ground in the Valley of the Kings didn't exist until Egypt's New Kingdom (1539 B.C. to 1075 B.C.), around 1,000 years after Merit Ptah was thought to have lived. What's more, though "Merit Ptah as a name existed in the Old Kingdom," there is no record of that name linked to a physician in any list of ancient Egyptian healers, even controversial ones, Kwiecinski said.

Hurd-Mead herself owned a book that briefly mentioned, but didn't name, another ancient Egyptian healer who lived during the fifth dynasty of Egypt's Old Kingdom, according to the UC statement. From context, it was clear that that ancient Egyptian healer the book was referring to was a woman named Peseshet.

Peseshet became known from the 20th-century excavation of the tomb of her son Akhethetep, an Old Kingdom courier who was thought to have lived around 2400 B.C. His tomb, found in Giza (much farther north than the Valley of Kings), included a false door depicting his father and his mother and describing her as the "Overseer of Healer Women." Hurd-Mead likely confused Merit Ptah with Peseshet, Kwiecinski said. 

"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 said. "And so, from a misunderstood case of an authentic Egyptian woman healer, Peseshet, a seemingly earlier Merit Ptah, 'the first woman physician,' was born."

This ancient Egyptian healer's story shows how erroneous historical accounts can easily spread after being created in amateur historian circles, Kwiecinski wrote in the paper describing his study, which was published Nov. 22 in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. But it also shows how important role models have been for women entering science and medicine, he wrote. 

"Even though Merit Ptah is not an authentic ancient Egyptian woman healer … 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," he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.