Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Healer of the pharaohs: History’s first woman doctor

Matthew Turner
Washington, US

Fragment of a Queen's Face showing the lower half of the head and part of the neck, the former including smooth and full lips
Fragment of a queen’s face. Yellow jasper statue fragment from the Egyptian New Kingdom, c. 1390–1336 BC. Met Museum. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.

Some 4500 years ago, as the great pyramids rose above the desert sands of Egypt, there lived a remarkable woman. Her name was Peseshet, and she is humanity’s first known woman physician.

Peseshet was known by the title imy-r swnwt, which roughly translates to “Lady Overseer of the Lady Physicians.”1 She was a member of a powerful aristocratic family, and by all indications, a force in her own right. The tomb of her son, Akhet-Hetep, depicts his mother as an important figure within the upper echelons of Egyptian nobility, an “acquaintance of the king”—a title that conferred incredible honor.2 This was likely in large part due to her duties, which included caring after the king’s mother.3 Healing was not her only area of expertise—Akhet-Hetep’s stela also refers to his mother as an “overseer of the funerary priests.”4 Even in her domestic life, Peseshet strikes an imposing presence. Her son’s glyphs of his mother depict her in size equal to her husband,2 and the text assures us that she lived to a “good old age.”1

As the likely originators of organized medical care, ancient Egyptian medicine was often highly specialized. We possess records of characters such as Sekhetnankh, the “nose doctor,” and Iry, royal physician and “guardian of the royal bowel movement,”5 as well as surgeons,1 gynecologists,6 dentists, proctologists, ophthalmologists, and gastroenterologists.7 Like other physicians of her time, Peseshet likely owed her position to years of intense academic training at temple schools.1 While it is impossible from the evidence available to determine if Peseshet belonged to the modern equivalent of any particular medical specialty, her leadership roles—both as a physician and as a priestess—are made clear in the text.

Interestingly, Peseshet’s title “Lady Overseer of the Lady Physicians” implies several other women physicians practiced during the Fourth Dynasty as well.3 However, evidence of these women remains frustratingly scant. Until more evidence from that distant time can be found, Peseshet will likely keep her well-earned title as the world’s first known woman physician.


  1. Saber, A. Ancient Egyptian surgical heritage. J Invest Surg. 2010;23(6):327-334.
  2. Harer Jr, W.B., el-Dawakhly, Z. Peseshet–the first female physician? Obstet Gynecol. 1989;74(6):960-961.
  3. Pahor, A.L. First among women.  1992;304(6836):1249.
  4. Nunn, J.F. The doctor in ancient Egypt. Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. 1994; 7(1):5-13.
  5. Sullivan, R. A brief journey into medical care and disease in ancient Egypt. J R Soc Med. 1995;88(3):141.
  6. Haimov-Kochman, R., Sciaky-Tamir, Y., Hurwitz, A. Reproduction concepts and practices in ancient Egypt mirrored by modern medicine. Eur J. Obstet. Gynecol. 2005;123(1):3-8.
  7. Nunn, J.F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. University of Oklahoma Press; 1996.

MATTHEW TURNER is a current transitional year intern at Madigan Army Medical Center. He is interested in the intersection of medicine and history.

Highlighted Vignette Volume 15, Issue 2 – Spring 2023

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