The ancient Egyptians used examination, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis, to the treatment of diseases, which are all described in Egyptian medical textbooks from around c. 1600 BC.

Did the ancient Egyptians use some kind of scientific method, if not, what is the the earliest accounts of an scientific method for investigating phenomena, and acquiring new knowledge?

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    $\begingroup$ The issue is that it is not at all define "the" scientifi method. Observation is part of it and ancient egyptians doctors used observation to acquire knowledge ... $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2014 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but mere observation is not a defined methodology. What if I would phrase the question like this instead: What are the earliest accounts for a defined methodology for acquiring knowledge? $\endgroup$
    – WaWaWa
    Nov 8, 2014 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ It does not change ... for me. Francis Bacon spent his life to define "the" scientific methodology and we do not have any scientific discovery made by him, while it is quite impossible to found exactly what was Galileo's method... and he produced an impressive increase of our knowledge of the physical world. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2014 at 11:58
  • $\begingroup$ What is your source of information about Egyptian medical textbooks of c. 1600 BC ? $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2014 at 2:33
  • $\begingroup$ Ancient Egyptian Medicine: The Papyrus Ebers by Cyril P. Bryan $\endgroup$
    – WaWaWa
    Nov 9, 2014 at 8:17

1 Answer 1


Of course, the exact definition of the scientific method is open to discussion (and the scientific method may be very different in different sciences, compare chemistry, astronomy, geology and mathematics, for example).

The earliest account that I know of an experimental discovery is physics is credited to Pythagoras. According to the legend, he once visited a blacksmith workshop and noticed that similar metal rods of various length produce sounds of various pitch when struck with a hummer. Apparently he experimented with various rods and strings, and derived the correct law relating the musical intervals with ratios of length of the strings that produce them.

Apparently this discovery impressed him so much that he concluded that "numbers rule the world", which is essentially the main paradigm of exact scienses. In modern formulation: the laws of nature are expressed in mathematical form.

This is what the legend says about the origin of ("Western European") exact science. This happened some time in VI cent. BC.

Somewhat earlier in the same century mathematical method was born: Thales of Miletus proved the first theorems.

Of course, all this information comes from much later secondary sources. So these are property called "legends". But this is the best information we apparently possess.

According to Lucio Russo, with whom I agree, this led to the full development of the scientific method which reached its culmination in II BC and was still practiced in II AD. But then there was an interruption, and all exact science, together with the method were lost almost for a millenium.

It had to be reborn, rediscovered, and this happened in 16-th century, when Francis Bacon explicitly described the newly discovered scientific method. Fortunately, some of the Hellenistic science was preserved outside of Europe.

EDIT. I was asked to add sources.

For the story with Pythagoras, see "Pythagorean hummers" on Wikipedia, it lists original sources.

On Thales, his story is told in almost every history of Greek mathematics, I used van der Waerden, Science awakening.(English tranls. Ocford Univ press 1961). He also has a book on Pythagoreans, but I do not have it besides me.

Lucio Russo's book is called Forgotten revolution (engl. transl. Springer 2004). There is a nice long review of this book in the Notices Amer. Math. Soc., which I believe is freely available. There is about a dozen other reviews online.

Francis Bacon's main work on scientific method is called New Organon (Wikipedia article "Francis Bacon" has a link to a free online version, and actually to cmplete works of Bacon).

  • $\begingroup$ Could you add some links to sources? $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Nov 8, 2014 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE 226868: I will. I don't remember all sources immediately but I will check and add. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2014 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ Russo's speculations are interesting but I would take them with a grain of salt, "Russo finds Hellenistic interpretations everywhere, and where there is no text to back him up, he speculates that such a text is lost."maa.org/publications/maa-reviews/…. I would also add John Philoponus to the forerunners of the scientific method, "our view may be completely corroborated by actual observation more effectively than by any sort of verbal argument." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Philoponus $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Nov 9, 2014 at 0:37
  • $\begingroup$ You are right about the "grain of salt". He is not very objective in his speculations. However I am convinced that the general picture he gives is right. And I was convinced in this before I read Russo. The evidence is really abundant. $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2014 at 0:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold: I will be glad to discuss Russo's book by e-mail if you wish. My e-mail is in my profile. The questions discussed in Russo's book are of high interest for me. $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2014 at 2:30

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