An ancient Egyptian woman thought to be the first ever female doctor probably never existed, a study has claimed.
Merit Ptah has long been celebrated as one of the first women in the medical field and served as an inspiration for generations of female medics and scientists. She even has a crater named after her on the planet Venus.
But her existence 4,500 years ago is unlikely to be true, according to one historian who analysed centuries of records to debunk the myth.
Instead, they claim it is likely Merit Ptah is actually another Egyptian healer-turned-physician who also has long, black hair called Peseshet.
Despite this, Ptah is still a ‘very real symbol of the 20th century feministic struggle’, the academic said.
Statues and images such as the above have circulated online purporting to be Merit Ptah, the physician, but she may never really have existed. This bust is of Queen Merit-Amon, from Thebes
Dr Jakub Kwiecinski, from the University of Colorado, pored over historical records of Ptah after seeing her name mentioned repeatedly.
‘Merit Ptah was everywhere,’ Dr Kwiecinski said.
‘In online posts about women in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths], in computer games, in popular history books, there’s even a crater on Venus named after her.
‘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.’
Dr Kwiecinski traced the roots of the story back to a book written in 1938 by medical historian and doctor, Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead.
She said a tomb in Egypt’s Valley of Kings had been found which contained a ‘picture of a woman doctor named Merit Ptah’.
The book, called ‘A History of Women in Medicine: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century’, said she was known as the ‘Chief Physician’ and was the mother of a high priest.
But Dr Kwiecinski said no other record of a physician called Merit Ptah existed, but a female healer called Peseshet looked just like her.
He said: ‘Unfortunately, Hurd-Mead in her own book accidentally mixed up the name of the ancient healer.’
A Colorado-based researcher said an author in the 1930s may have been mistaken in thinking the healer Peseshet (pictured) was Merit Ptah. Peseshet was a healer who definitely existed for real, he said
ASSUME DOCTORS ARE WOMEN IF YOU’RE NOT SURE, EXPERT SAYS
Everyone should assume doctors are women unless they’re told otherwise, an expert has argued.
Dr Elizabeth Loder, a medical doctor, Harvard professor and head of research at the British Medical Journal, claims presuming all doctors are men is outdated.
Instead, ‘she’ or ‘her’ should automatically be used to refer to a doctor if the speaker doesn’t know their gender, she said.
Numbers of female doctors will soon catch up with males in the UK and the US but the medical profession is still clinging to the stereotype of a man as the default.
‘Soon, most doctors in the US, the UK, and Europe will be women; this is already the case in many countries,’ Dr Loder wrote in the BMJ.
‘But medicine is not leading the way in gender equity. Gender discrimination and harassment are serious and pervasive issues in academic and clinical medicine.’
At the last count, the NHS in England had 25,263 female GPs to 19,675 male ones. More men are partners, however, meaning they own part or all of the surgery they work in.
In her editorial Dr Loder said there is a ‘gender neutral pronoun revolution’ well under way in society, but that would be a big step for the medical establishment.
She said: ‘Using female pronouns for doctors would force everyone, on a regular basis, to remember that women can be doctors.
‘Furthermore, in situations where most doctors are male, it’s then even more desirable to use a default pronoun of ‘she’ to expand people’s ideas of who can be a doctor.’
Hurd-Mead’s book claimed Ptah was buried in the Valley of the Kings, which is where pharaohs and nobles were buried.
However, this didn’t match the time frame for when she was supposed to have lived because the Valley was not used until hundreds of years later.
‘Merit Ptah as a name existed in the Old Kingdom, but does not appear in any of the collated lists of ancient Egyptian healers — not even as one of the “legendary” or “controversial” cases,’ Dr Kwiecinski said.
‘She is also absent from the list of Old Kingdom women administrators.
‘No Old Kingdom tombs are present in the Valley of the Kings, where the story places Merit Ptah’s son, and only a handful of such tombs exist in the larger area, the Theban Necropolis.’
The name may instead have been picked up while Hurd-Mead sifted through records of the wife of a high-ranking official, Ramose, who really was buried in the Valley of the Kings more than 1,000 years after Merit Ptah the healer was thought to have existed.
Dr Kwiecinski added: ‘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.
‘And so, from a misunderstood case of an authentic Egyptian woman healer, Peseshet, a seemingly earlier Merit Ptah, “the first woman physician” was born.’
Over the more than six decades since the book was published, stories about Merit Ptah circulated among historians and were – wrongly – believed to be true, he said.
A determination to prove women’s importance in science and medical history led to the story being widely shared and used as a symbol, Dr Kwiecinski said.
Whether it is true or not was not really the point any more.
‘So even though Merit Ptah is not an authentic ancient Egyptian woman healer,’ he said.
‘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.’
Dr Kwiecinski published his paper in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.
In England female GPs outnumber male ones by 25,263 to 19,675 and, although medicine overall is male-dominated, that is expected to change in the near future.
Research in the past has found patients of women doctors have lower death rates and experts say female medics are better at communicating with their patients.