The Edwin Smith Papyrus

Named for the antiquities dealer who purchased it in 1862, the Edwin Smith Papyrus is oldest known medical writing to deal with trauma surgery. Consisting of descriptions of practical treatment for 48 different injuries, fractures, wounds, and tumors, it is believed to be an early military surgery manual. It’s suggests some pretty impressive skills and knowledge for doctors who operated 3,600 years ago.

Medicine Not Magic

Dated to circa 1600 BCE, during the 16th and/or 17th Dynasties of Ancient Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period, the Edwin Smith Papyrus (ESP) is one of four significant medical-related papyri from this period. Unlike the others, while prescribe magic or spells for certain maladies, ESP describes a legitimate scientific and medical approach to treating injuries and ailments.

Over 15 feet long, ESP includes extensive inscription on both sides. The A side contains 377 lines in 17 columns, while the B side holds 92 lines in 5 columns. It is almost fully intact, with only minor damage and wear despite its age; however, it was cut into multiple single-column pages by some 20th century jack@$$. ESP is written right-to-left in hieratic, which is essentially cursive hieroglyphics. (Who knew that was a thing?)

A portion of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, displaying some splendid penmanship.

A portion of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, displaying some splendid penmanship.

Most of the medical information provided by the ESP relates to trauma and surgery. The front details 48 case histories of injuries/illnesses and their treatments, organized by organ or body part, starting with the head and moving down the body. Each case also offers additional info on the patients, explanations of what caused the trauma (in most cases), diagnosis, and prognosis. Titles are highly descriptive—“Practices for a gaping wound in his head, which has penetrated to the bone and split the skull”—because catchy titles had not yet been invented. The back of ESP contains eight magic spells, five prescriptions, and a few sections devoted to gynecology and cosmetics.

A number of treatments are described in detail, including closing wounds (of the lip, throat, and shoulder) with sutures, bandaging, splinting broken bones, poultices, infection prevention and cures (mostly honey-related), and how to stop bleeding with raw meat, which seems a bit suspect by modern standards. ESP contains the world’s first known descriptions of several internal structures of the skull and brain, as well as the first ever written use of the word “brain”. (Like ever, in the history of ever. Ever.)

Big Ed with the Assist

Born in Connecticut in 1822, Edwin “Big Ed” Smith was an American Egyptologist. He purchased the papyrus that now bears his name in Luxor, Egypt, at age 40, and it was in his possession until his death in 1906. His daughter subsequently donated the papyrus to the New York Historical Society, who displayed it at the Brooklyn Museum from 1938 to 1948. At that time, it was gifted by the Society and the Museum to the New York Academy of Medicine, where it is still on display today. (It was briefly on exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 2005 to 2006.)

Smith had a working knowledge of hieroglyphs, but did not know hieratic well enough to translate the scroll himself. In 1930, it was successfully translated by American archaeologist James Henry “Big Jim” Breasted and Dr. Arno Luckhardt. This translation demonstrated for the first time that the Ancient Egyptians used rational, scientific medical treatment methods, not just magic potions and spells as other medical resources of the time suggested.

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