Brief Thoughts on the Medical History of Ethiopia

Ethiopia has a long tradition of Medical History which deserves an important place in the country’s social and cultural history. The Ethiopians, since time immemorial, have been familiar with a wide range of diseases and medical complaints for which they had long-established names, both in their ancient classical language, Ge’ez, and in other indigenous tongues of the country. Scrutiny of Ethiopian ecclesiastical texts, the majority of which are unfortunately still mainly accessible only in foreign libraries and other collections, indicates that traditional Ethiopian healers also possessed a wide variety of cures. Many of these, like those in long-established civilisations in other parts of the world, came from the Vegetable Kingdom. These included leaves, roots, flowers and seeds or fruit of locally-grown plants, which, on account of Ethiopia’s remarkable geographical character, varied greatly as a result of differences in altitude and hence climate. The Animal Kingdom was at the same time represented, strange to say, by certain insects used in medicine; and the Chemical Kingdom by various salts and volcanic substances.

Other traditional treatments utilised a variety of medical practices. These included purging, bleeding and cupping, steam baths and immersion in hot, often thermal water, traditional-style variolation ( a treatment for smallpox similar mpdern vaccination), and counter-irritation.  Many such cures were recorded in Ge’ez texts, and were passed down by practising families from generation to generation, in some instances with considerable secrecy. Information on such treatments is also preserved in traditional medical books produced by Ethiopian church scholars, as well as in the detailed accounts of foreign travellers, some of whom were themselves medical practitioners.

The wealth of medical knowledge available to Ethiopians in the past is apparent from the detailed memoirs of the early sixteenth century Portuguese traveller Francesco Alvares, and in the subsequent records of Spanish and Portuguese Jesuits, including the Spanish missionary Pero Paes, an English translation of whose memoirs was published in London last week. Extensive accounts of traditional Ethiopian medical cures were also found in early nineteenth and twentieth century European scientific, botanical and other literature.

Such information was much expanded in the early twentieth century through the study of traditional Ethiopian medical manuscripts. This work was largely initiated by Marcel Cohen, the French founder of Ethiopian Studies in Europe, as well subsequently by the Polish éthiopisant, our old friend  Stefan Strelcyn, who published several important Ge’ez medical texts and extended his studies from linguistics far into botany.

Much knowledge about traditional Ethiopian medicine is  preserved in the folk memory of Ethiopians in many parts of the country.

Research on traditional Ethiopian medicine is now well underway in such scientific studies as Dawit Abebe and Ahadu Ayehu, Medicinal Plants and Enigmatic Health Practices of Northern Ethiopia, 1993, and Fekadu Fullas, Ethiopian Traditional Medicine: Common Medicinal Plants in Perspective, 2001.

An understanding of traditional Ethiopian medicine is important not only for the light it throws on the extent and antiquity of Ethiopian medical knowledge of the past, but also to help present-day practitioners through an awareness of these traditions.

There is moreover always the possibility – nay probability – that traditional Ethiopian medicine, like the traditional medicine of other countries of the world, may be found to possess valuable ingredients for use in modern medicine.

The field for such investigation is immense and wide open.