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Ancient Medical Books of the Egyptians

Manuscripts of Egyptian Scientific Studies

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Canopic Jars from Tuthankhamun's Tomb

Canopic Jar from the Tomb of Tutankhamun. The heads represent the four protective goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Selket and Neith. Tutankhamun reigned between 1336 BC and 1327 BC.

Gerard Gratadour (Isifa) / Getty Images News / Getty Images
Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus

A page from the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, dated ca. 1550 BC.

Jeff Dahl

Some of the earliest recorded scientific medical accounts are from the Middle Kingdom of Pharaonic Egypt and dated to ~1800 BC. About a dozen Egyptian medical papyrus manuscripts written between ca 1800 BC and 250 AD have been discovered: the most complete of these are the Ebers Papyrus and the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, both purchased by Edwin Smith in 1862.

Edwin Smith was a language specialist and antiquities dealer who had studied the Egyptian language and culture in London and Paris in the 1850s. He lived and worked in Luxor between 1858 and 1876, and it was during that period that he obtained the so-called Ebers and Smith manuscripts. Although he attempted to translate the manuscripts, scholarly advances in hieratic text were not as yet perfected at the time and the English translations of the texts would not appear until the 1930s.

The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus

The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (known as the Smith Papyrus or ESS Papyrus) was bought by Edwin Smith in 1862. After Smith's death in 1906, the ESS Papyrus was donated to the New York Historical Society, and eventually ended up in the hands of Egyptologist James Henry Breasted. Breasted worked on the manuscript for a decade before he published an English translation, complete with medical notes by physician Arno Luckhardt.

Although the complete provenance of the manuscript is not known, Breasted surmised that it was written in the 16th century BC. He also noted that some of the hieroglyphic symbols used in the text are clearly older and likely represent artifacts of copying from an earlier manuscript. Breasted suggested that the original writer of the manuscript might have been that Old Kingdom "renaissance man" Imhotep, architect and scholar of the Pharaoh Djoser (26th century BC).

The ESS Papyrus is probably best thought of as a medical manual or training guide, made up of approximately 15 feet of papyrus. It describes 48 cases of wounds, injuries and fractures, listed in order beginning with the head (27 cases), then the neck (five cases), upper arm (3 cases) and chest (8 cases). There the text breaks off in mid-sentence, suggesting that the manuscript is a fragment of what had been a larger text.

The cases are set up with subheadings: Introduction, Significant Symptoms, Diagnosis, Recommended Treatment, and Explanation. The case descriptions seem to be about young, healthy male patients, and for that reason, the ESS has been interpreted as arising from battlefield medicine. One of three verdicts follow the diagnoses: "This is a medical condition I can heal"; "This is a medical condition I intend to fight with" and "This is a medical condition which cannot be healed": this appears to be a triage system, still followed today in modern battlefield conditions.

Ebers Papyrus

The Ebers Papyrus is a scroll measuring 68 feet long and 12 inches wide, with 108 columns of text arranged in 112 pages of 20-22 lines each. It was said to have been recovered from a tomb in Thebes, but it was purchased by Edwin Smith in the 1860s. Smith sold it to Egyptologist Georg Moritz Ebers, who published a facsimile edition in 1875. The first translation was by H. Joachim in German and it first appeared in English in the 1930s.

A date at the top of the manuscript refers to 1536 BC, within the reign of Amenophis I; but grammar used by the hieratic script and internal evidence suggests that the Ebers Papyrus, like the ESS Papyrus, is a New Kingdom copy of a manuscript first developed during the Old Kingdom. Some parts of the Ebers manuscript, such as that referring to the stomach and heart, are very similar in construction to the ESS Papyrus. The book, parts of which were written perhaps as early as the 12th Dynasty (1995-1773 BC) includes a series of prescriptions for various diseases, illnesses and injuries.

The Ebers Papyrus refers to three types of healers: physicians, surgeons, and sorcerer/exorcists. Among the 842 prescriptions for poultices, creams and other cures is one for baldness: wear a poultice combined of equal parts of fat from lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, goose, serpent and ibex. The recipes are made up of approximately 328 ingredients mixed in a myriad ways depending on the illness. Most of the recipes include magic spells and incantations as part of the remedy.

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