Imhotep: a Name of History

A statuette depicting Imhotep
A statuette depicting Imhotep

Imhotep (known formally as Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief), is the first known artist, architect, engineer, and physician. How did he achieve these things? It is all in his name.


For millennia, human beings created art without mention of their name. Cave paintings of Lascaux, Venus figurines, Macedonian mosaics… all unattributed to any one man or woman. Imhotep signed his work, and thus we know him to be an artist. But more importantly, no earlier artwork contains a signature from its creator. This makes Imhotep the earliest known artist.

The base of a Statue of Djoser, with Imhotep's name highlighted
The base of a Statue of Djoser, with Imhotep’s name highlighted

The same can be said of architecture. Because Imhotep was the first to attribute his work to his name, we know him to be the architect of many structures. Most famous of his architectural works is the Pyramid of Djoser; the first large-scale pyramid in Egypt. Not only did he pioneer pyramid construction, but may also be the first to use columns as support, not just decoration. In doing both of those things, he’s also earned a place in history as the earliest known engineer.

The Pyramid of Djoser Photo by Olaf Tausch
The Pyramid of Djoser
Photo by Olaf Tausch

But how, over 4,000 years ago, can Imhotep be called a physician? Before Imhotep, medicine was tightly tied to mysticism and religion. Demons caused infections and disease, so the only way to cure them was through supernatural means. Imhotep approached medicine from an observational standpoint. In his text (now known as the “Edwin Smith Papyrus”), Imhotep explains the examination, diagnoses, and eventual non-magic treatment of his patients.

A page from the Edwin Smith papyrus
A page from the Edwin Smith papyrus

What a person’s name is attached to, is what their legacy becomes. While there may have been earlier physicians or artists or influential architects… Their names have been lost to time. Imhotep managed to write his name in stone to last generations. He was prolific with both his work and his name, perhaps more so than any other man.

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