Merit Ptah, the first female doctor, who did not actually exist

The Ancient Egyptian figure, celebrated for decades as a role model for women, is a hoax

The Ancient Egyptian figure Merit Ptah , celebrated for decades as the first female doctor and a role model for women entering medicine, never existed. That’s the conclusion of a researcher at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus who sees the case as an example of how misconceptions can spread .

“Almost like a detective, I had to trace her history, following every clue, to find out how it all started and who invented Merit Ptah,” Jakub Kwiecinski, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the School of Medicine, said in a statement. from the University of Colorado and a medical historian. His study was published in the ‘Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences’.

Kwiecinski’s interest in Merit Ptah (‘beloved of the god Ptah’) was piqued after seeing her name in so many places. “Merit Ptah was everywhere. In online posts about women in STEM, in computer games, in popular history books, there is even a crater on Venus named after her,”she said. “And yet, with all these mentions, there was no proof that she actually existed. It soon became apparent that there had been no ancient Egyptian female physician named Merit Ptah.”

Delving into the historical record, Kwiecinski uncovered a case of mistaken identity that took on a life of its own, fueled by those eager for an inspiring story .

According to Kwiecinski, the Merit Ptah case had its origins in the 1930s when Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, a medical historian, doctor, and activist, set out to write a comprehensive history of women physicians around the world. Her book was published in 1938.

She spoke about the excavation of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, where there was a “picture of a female doctor named Merit Ptah, the mother of a high priest, who calls her the ‘Chief Physician’ “.

Kwiecinski said there was no record that person was a doctor. “Merith Ptah as a name existed in the Old Kingdom, but it does not appear in any of the compiled lists of ancient Egyptian healers , not even as one of the ‘legendary’ or ‘controversial cases,’” he said. “She is also absent from the list of female administrators of the Ancient Kingdom. There are no Old Kingdom tombs present in the Valley of the Kings, where history places Merit Ptah’s son, and only a few tombs exist in the larger area, the Theban necropolis.”

The ancient kingdom of Egypt lasted from 2575 to 2150 BC. C. But there was another woman who bears a striking resemblance to Merit Ptah. In 1929-30, an excavation at Giza uncovered a tomb of Akhethetep, an Old Kingdom courtier. Inside, a false door depicted a woman named Peseshet, presumably the mother of the tomb’s owner, described as the ‘Overseer of the female healers’ . Peseshet and Merit Ptah came from the same time periods and both were mentioned in the tombs of their children who were high priestly officials.

This discovery was described in several books, one of which found its way into the Hurd-Mead private library. Kwiecinski believes that Hurd-Mead mistook Merit Ptah for Peseseth.

“Unfortunately, Hurd-Mead in her own book accidentally mixed up the former healer’s name, as well as the date she lived and the location of the grave,” he said. “And so, from a misunderstood case of a genuine Egyptian healer, Peseshet, an apparently earlier Merit Ptah, ‘the first female physician,’ was born . ”

Merit Ptah’s story spread far and wide, propelled by a variety of forces. Kwiecinski said one factor was the popular perception of ancient Egypt as an almost fairy-tale land “out of time and space” perfectly suited for the creation of legendary stories. The story spread through circles of amateur historians, creating a kind of echo chamber similar to the way fake news circulates today .

“Ultimately, it became associated with an extremely emotional, partisan, but also deeply personal equal rights issue,” he said. “Taken together, this created a perfect storm that propelled the Ptah Merit story to be told over and over again.” However, Kwiecinski said the most surprising part of the story is not the error, but the determination of generations of women historians to recover the forgotten history of healers, showing that science and medicine have never been exclusively one territory of men.

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