In the late 1860s Auguste Mariette and Jacques de Morgan were excavating a site at Saqqara in the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis when they discovered the fabulous tomb of Hesyre (Hesy-Ra).
On the walls they found six beautifully carved acacia wood panels, about 110cm tall. These listed Hesyre's many titles, including "Confidant of the king" and "Magician of Mehit". Another, was "Great one of the dentists", which makes him the first such ever named. Most likely he wasn't actually the first, but he carried enough status to earn the title.
Hesyre lived in Egypt around 2650BC, during the reign of King Djoser in the third dynasty. The exceptionally dry climate and the practice of mummification in ancient Egypt has provided archaeologists with a large number of well-preserved remains. This, together with other archaeological and documentary evidence, has revealed a great deal about their dental health.
The picture that emerges is one of worn teeth, gum disorders and numerous dental abscesses. The most significant problem was tooth wear, caused by their coarse fibrous diet, which contained abrasive material such as sand blown in from the desert. Adding to this was sandstone from the grinding implements used to make flour.
Tooth wear was experienced, not only by the peasants, but by the majority of the population, including rulers and the elite.
When the protective tooth enamel is worn down, it becomes sensitive, exposing the pulp chamber in the centre of the tooth, which is then prone to infection. Today, that would probably result in root canal therapy, but there's no evidence that was an option in Hesyre's time.
Ancient Egyptians also suffered from periodontal or gum disease, caused primarily by bacterial irritation from the build-up of plaque and calculus deposits on the teeth.
As with people now, they also experienced tooth decay, although the incidence was fairly low due to the lack of refined sugars in the diet of the ancient Egyptians.
One wonders what advice Hesyre gave his patients, but a fair guess is he'd have mentioned oral hygiene. The venerable toothbrush started life as simple chew sticks, feathers, bones, and even porcupine quills. A bristle toothbrush dating to 1600BC has been found in an archaeological dig.
There is some evidence to suggest dental extractions were performed, although there are only a few documented instances. Otherwise, there is little evidence in four of the surviving medical papyri of operative dental treatment.
However, they did practice methods such as stabilising loose teeth by packing various materials around them. They also treated various mouth ulcers, abscesses and gum infections with prescriptions containing antibacterial components.
- For more, read Hesyre:The First Recorded Physician And Dental Surgeon In History by Roger Forshaw on Researchgate.
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