Ancient Egypt's Mythical Female Doctor Merit Ptah Helped 'Open Medicine and STEM to Women'

Merit Ptah is frequently cited by feminist historians and popular history blogs as the first female physcian—however, many academics question the ancient Egyptian healer ever existed in the first place.

Jakub Kwiecinski, a medical historian at the University of Colorado, turned a detective eye on Merit Ptah to trace her backstory and find out where the myth came from. Writing in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Kwiecinski concludes Merit Ptah is a case of mistaken identity but while she might not be real in the historic sense, the myth helped "open medicine and STEM to women."

"Merit Ptah was everywhere. In online posts about women in STEM, in computer games, in popular history books, there's even a crater on Venus named after her," said Kwiecinski in a statement. "And yet, with all these mentions, there was no proof that she really existed. It soon became clear that there had been no ancient Egyptian woman physician called Merit Ptah."

Following any leads on Merit Ptah he could find, Kwiecinski concluded she originated some time in the 1930s when a U.S. medical historian, doctor and activist, Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, published a book documenting the history of medical women around the world in 1938. Merit Ptah—a woman doctor and mother of a high priest—was one of the figures described.

According to Hurd-Mean, she was not only a healer but "the Chief Physician," meaning she was both the first reported example of a female doctor and the first reported example of a female head of a healthcare system.

The story of Merit Ptah and her status as the first female medic spread in amateur historian circles, which formed something akin to an echo chamber, allowing the myth to take hold, Kwiecinski argues.

"Finally, it was associated with an extremely emotional, partisan—but also deeply personal—issue of equal rights," said Kwiecinski. "Altogether this created a perfect storm that propelled the story of Merit Ptah into being told over and over again."

But, said Kwiecinski, the problem is she doesn't exist—at least, not as the first woman physician. The name Merit Ptah does appear on the tomb of Ramose as the tomb owner's wife in the New Kingdom. However, this does not fit into Hurd-Mead's timeline, which puts Merit Ptah in the Old Kingdom. Nor does her name present itself on any list of ancient Egyptian healers—"not even as one of the 'legendary'; or 'controversial cases," said Kwiecinski.

Tomb-Chapel of Ramose
The tomb of Ramose depicts a woman called Merit Ptah, often cited as the first female physician. Pictured: Tomb-Chapel of Ramose in Shaykh Abd Al-Qurnah, showing bas-reliefs Depicting Guests to a Banquet Offered by Ramose. Gian Berto Vanni/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty

Kwiecinski believes the story of Merit Ptah has been allowed to propagate because of a dearth of information relating to her, enabling Merit Ptah to become a blank slate, and because it was never properly exposed to a critical audience. It also, he argues in the paper, fits into a narrative that imagines Egypt as a more gender equal society than others of that time.

"Perceived through such a mythical lens, ancient Egypt appears not as an object of a potential critical inquiry, but as a setting for legendary tales, as long as they retain a level of verisimilitude," Kwiecinski wrote in the paper.

However, he added, there was another figure that bears certain similarities to Merit Ptah but carries more academic weight and has appeared in academic journals. Peseshet is described as the "Overseer of Healer Women," and came from the same time period as Merit Ptah. Peseshet was also described in the tomb of her son, who was also a high priest. Kwiecinski believes this could explain a case of mistaken identity.

According to Kwiecinski, Hurd-Mead mixed up the name and the date of the healer, as well as the location of the tomb. To support his argument he says Merit Ptah's name is first mentioned in an article published in January 1933 (and not in Hurd-Mead's 1928 and 1929 writings), suggesting Hurd-Mead first heard of her after the excavation of a tomb depicting Peseshet in 1929-30 and a publication on the findings of that excavation in 1932.

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

"Merit Ptah's story is a warning about over-reliance on secondary sources, and about misleading character of historical information in the Internet—including even seemingly well-sourced Wikipedia articles," wrote Kwiecinski.

However, it also shows how influential popular history authors can be to the distribution of historical information, said Kwiecinski. And while there may be little historical basis for her claim to be the first female medic, "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," said Kwiecinski.