Mummies in Medicine Museums

The origin of the use of Egyptian mummies as a medicinal remedy is intriguing. Mummification of the dead was practiced in ancient Egypt for over 3000 years, but did you know that some Europeans used to eat mummies as medicine? When the mummified bodies were first found by local Egyptians and then by European travellers from the Middle Ages on, the black colour of some mummies was assumed to be bitumen (‘mumiya’ in Arabic) and therefore these bodies were called mumia. This is where the word mummy comes from. Bitumen was considered to have various healing properties, and therefore mummies were used as a grounded powder for medicinal use. The King of France, Francis I, is thought to have used this to cure diseases. It was not the most common cure in Europe, but the use of mumia was enough to develop into a market, and fake mummies using the corpses of recently deceased people were created to supply the demand.

Plate showing different types of mummies and the mummification process. P. Pomet, A compleat history of drugs...: mummies. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Not everyone agreed on the actual benefits of the mumia. French surgeon Ambroise Paré dedicated a chapter in his Discours (1582) to mummies, in which he warned of the risks of ingesting powders derived from mummies which had been decaying for centuries. Pierre Pomet in his Histoire Générale des Drogues (1694) dedicated a section to Egyptian mummies highlighting his reservations as to the actual medicinal properties of mummies, and yet, he noted that one must choose a mummy that is ‘beautiful, shiny, very dark, without bone nor dust, with a good smell, the smell of burnt, not pitch’! For the first 2000 years of mummification in Egypt, bitumen was in fact not used in the preservation process and only became prevalent around 750 BC, up to the Roman period. This means that quite a lot of Egyptian mummies used for their medicinal properties probably contained no bitumen at all, and individuals were simply ingesting grounded corpses.

One must choose a mummy that is ‘beautiful, shiny, very dark, without bone nor dust, with a good smell, the smell of burnt, not pitch’!

Even though the use of Egyptian mummies as medicine stopped, mummies were still of great interest in the medical world. In 1763, the first medical dissection of an Egyptian mummy in Britain took place in London at the house of John Hadley. The mummy was dissected by William and John Hunter, two influential medical surgeons of the time. The goal of this dissection was to understand mummification. The mummy was in poor state, but the foot was of much interest due to a bulbous root; it is now preserved in the collection of a medical museum, the Hunterian Museum in London.

The mummy foot with a bulbuous root drawn and conserved during the dissection of a mummy at John Hadley’s house ‘An account of a mummy, inspected at London 1763’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 54 (1764), pp.1-14.

Dissections of Egyptian mummies were not always practiced to understand mummification. At the end of the eighteenth century, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Egyptian mummies were studied to understand their racial origin. Medical dissections of Egyptian mummies became political and religious. Through the study of the size and shape of skulls, some individuals wanted to locate the racial origin of the ancient Egyptians, to prove a white origin of civilisation. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a German anthropologist, studied Egyptian mummies at the British Museum in the 1890s, while Augustus Bozzi Granville, a medical practitioner, conducted the dissection of an Egyptian mummy at his house to demonstrate its white origin. In France too, Egyptian mummies were studied at the Natural History Museum, in a strong colonial context.

The Egyptian mummy as medical specimen remains a source of contention in the uses of medical analyses such as the use of scans and DNA to determine origins, lineage, and still, racial origin. Today, Egyptian mummies in museum collections are examined in hospitals, going through CT scans, tissue sampling and studies into ancient diseases such as cancer, thus confirming the great relevance of Egyptian mummies to the medical world, past and present.

Considering the long history of Egyptian mummies in medicine collections, it is not surprising that Egyptian mummies were present in the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome in the Wellcome Historical Medical Collection in London. Wellcome travelled to Egypt and the Sudan on many occasions, and excavated a prehistoric cemetery at Gebel-Moya in 1911-1914, from which he collected skulls and human remains. All the Egyptian and Sudanese human remains in the Science Museum (London) collections are from the Wellcome Collection and are on long term loan at the Museum.

Section of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, Euston road, showing casts of Egyptian reliefs. Wellcome Historical Medical Museum: casts of Egyptian reliefs. Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

This blog was originally written for the Science Museum Blog, but was never published. For more on Egyptian mummies in medicine collections, keep an eye for my upcoming monograph.

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