Merit Ptah is often cited as the first female physician, believed to have been the Egyptian royal court's chief physician sometime around 2700–2500 BCE. She's often called the first woman known by name in the history of medicine, or even the first (named) woman we know of in the whole of science.
Posts all over the Internet describe how "her picture can be seen on a tomb in the necropolis near the step pyramid of Saqqara," and in evidence say "her son, who was a High Priest, described her as 'the chief physician'."
However, new research suggests there's a chance that she never actually existed. In fact, it's likely she only came into being in the 1930s.
University of Colorado researcher and medical historian Jakub Kwiecinski was intrigued by the story of Merit Ptah after seeing her name all over the place.
"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,” Kwiecinski said in a statement. “And yet, with all these mentions, there was no proof that she really existed."
He began to investigate her story, to find out where it originated. “Almost like a detective, I had to trace back her story... It soon became clear that there had been no ancient Egyptian woman physician called Merit Ptah.”
Instead, Kwiecinski believes this is a case of mistaken identity.
Reporting in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Kwiecinski claims that Merit Ptah first sprung into being – at least in the way she is described today – in the 1930s, when medical historian Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead published the book A History of Women in Medicine: From the Earliest of Times to the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century. In the book, Hurd-Mead describes the excavation of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings that included a “picture of a woman doctor named Merit Ptah, the mother of a high priest, who is calling her `the Chief Physician.’”
However, according to Kwiecinski, there is no record of this person being a physician.
“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. 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.”
To make the story more complicated, there is a second woman who has a remarkably similar story to Merit Ptah, whom Kwiecinski believes may have caused Hurd-Mead's mistake.
In 1929-30, excavations at Giza uncovered the tomb of Akhethetep, which also contained Peseshet, likely Akhethetep's mother. Peseshet was described as the "overseer of healer women". She lived in the same time period as Merit Ptah, and both were mentioned in the tombs of their sons. We've just been naming the wrong woman as the first-named woman to have worked in medicine.
“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,” Kwiecinski said.
He believes the mistake was reinforced through posts from amateur historians and people online, however, he believes the error doesn't detract from the story of women in medicine.
“Even though Merit Ptah is not an authentic ancient Egyptian woman healer 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.”