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Some Ancient Egyptians Had State-Sponsored Healthcare

Craftsmen who built royal tombs enjoyed sick days, designated physicians and rationed medicine—all paid by the state

A lithograph depicting an ancient Egyptian physician treating a patient for lockjaw. In the village of Deir el-Medina, this man may have still been paid while missing work. (Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

State-sponsored healthcare might seem like a relatively modern concept, but Egyptian papyri texts dating back 3,100 to 3,600 years tell a different story.

These text were discovered during archeological excavations of Deir el-Medina, a village occupied during ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom period, which spanned between 1550 and 1070 B.C. The village was the home to the highly skilled craftsmen charged with creating rock-cut tombs for royalty in the Valley of the Kings.

There were real perks to being a prized, adept worker in Deir el-Medina. The workers lived alongside their families, and the state provided them with monthly payments in grain, homes and even house servants. And, as the texts reveal, the workers also received the benefits of paid sick days. As New Historian explains:

Among the texts discovered are numerous records detailing when and why individual workmen were absent from work. Almost one-third of absences were as a result of a workman being too sick to work. Monthly ration distributions from Deir el-Medina, however, were very consistent; indicating that these workmen were paid their monthly grain even if they were off work for several days.

The papyri also show that the craftsmen were provided a kind of company doctor, “a workman on the crew designated as the swnw, physician,” reported Anne Austin, the dig’s lead archaeologist. The physician, outfitted with an assistant, was paid by the state for his services and given time off to prepare treatments.

The Egyptian state was involved with the pharmaceutical treatments of the day. “One text from Deir el-Medina indicates that the state rationed out common [medicinal] ingredients to a few men in the workforce so that they could be shared among the workers,” writes the Conversation. But the distribution of treatments wasn’t always so egalitarian. As is still the case today, some concoctions required expensive ingredients that only the very wealthy could afford—and there’s no evidence suggesting that state intervened to provide such treatments more widely.

There’s also textual evidence from Deir el-Medina that family played a big role in caring for the ill and disabled—an indictation that in ancient Egypt, just as in most of the world today, a complex social system provided for those who couldn’t provide for themselves.

It isn’t hard to understand what might have fueled the Egyptian state’s benefits package for skilled craftsmen. Trained and experienced workers of this kind were valuable assets, and keeping them healthy would have helped ensure productivity in the construction of royal tombs. It wasn't exactly universal health care—but, for the craftsmen who enjoyed the privilege, it must have been a real advantage.

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