Edwin Smith Papyrus: 3,600-Year-Old Surgical Treatise Reveals Secrets of Ancient Egyptian Medical Knowledge
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a medical treatise from ancient Egypt. This papyrus is named after Edwin Smith, the American collector of antiquities who purchased the papyrus. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is notable for being the oldest known surgical treatise in the world and casts some light on the medical knowledge possessed by the ancient Egyptians.
The Study of the Edwin Smith Papyrus
The Edwin Smith Papyrus was purchased by Edwin Smith in Luxor in 1862. As a matter of fact, it was sold to him in two parts. The first manuscript he bought had lacked some of its outer portions. Two months later, the same people sold him the remaining fragments, which were glued onto a dummy roll. Smith saw through this deception but recognized that the two were part of the same manuscript and pieced them together.
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Page from the Edwin Smith Papyrus. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Smith then tried to translate the text. Unfortunately, he did not possess sufficient knowledge to translate it and the papyrus was left as it was for the next few decades. When Smith died in 1906 this papyrus was given to the New York Historical Society. It was only in 1920 that another American Egyptologist, James Henry Breasted, was given the task of studying this work. Breasted made a transliteration and translation of the Edwin Smith Papyrus. In 1930, these, along with discussions, were published by him in two volumes.
When Was the Edwin Smith Papyrus Written?
The Edwin Smith Papyrus has been dated to the Second Intermediate Period of ancient Egypt, i.e. around 1600 BC. It is commonly believed, however, that this papyrus is a copy of an older treatise, one that dates to the Old Kingdom, i.e. around 3000 BC. Breasted himself speculated that the author of the original text might have been Imhotep, the renowned polymath and vizier of the pharaoh Djoser.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus was written in the hieratic script, the cursive form of the hieroglyphs, from right to left. The text is incomplete as its beginning and ending are missing. It was written using both black and red inks, the former for the main body of the text, and the latter for explanatory glosses.
Breasted believed that the glosses (69 of them in total) were added a few centuries after the original text was written. Breasted also noticed that the scribe (whose name has not been preserved) who copied the text made many errors, some of which were corrected in the margins.
The Case Histories of the Edwin Smith Papyrus
The Edwin Smith Papyrus contains a total of 48 cases which are systematically arranged. These cases begin with injuries to the head, and works its way down the body, dealing with injuries to the thorax and the spine.
The text, unfortunately, ends here and thus injuries to the lower part of the body are not dealt with, with the exception of Case 48, which concerns ‘a sprain in the vertebra of the lower back’.
Each case is also organized in a systematic manner, starting with an ‘Introductory Heading’, which serves as the title of the case, followed by an ‘Examination’ or ‘Significant Symptoms’ section, which provides a detailed examination of the injury sustained. This section usually begins with the formula “If you examine a man for…”
The next section is the ‘Diagnosis’, at the end of which is a verdict concerning the possibility of treatment, either favorable (treatable), uncertain, or unfavorable (untreatable).
In the Edwin Smith Papyrus, there are 14 instances of ‘untreatable’ injuries. For the remaining cases, a ‘Treatment’ section is provided.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus Anatomical Distribution of Cases. (Sinuhe20 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Some examples of injuries found in the Edwin Smith Papyrus may be given. These include injuries to the skull, for instance, “a wound to the head penetrating to the bone of the skull” (Case 1), and “a smash in the skull under the skin of the head” (Case 8); injuries to various facial features, for example, “a smash in the nostril” (Case 13), and “split in the cheek” (Case 16); and injuries to the torso, such as “a wound in the breast” (Case 40), and “a dislocation of the ribs of the breast” (Case 43).
Based on the nature of these injuries, it has been suggested that this medical treatise dealt with a specific group of patients – soldiers and construction workers who were injured during their work.
Treatments in the Edwin Smith Papyrus listed the step-by-step procedures taken in each case. (Fæ / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Finally, it may be noted that the Edwin Smith Papyrus demonstrates the highly methodical and rational approach taken by the ancient Egyptians when treating such injuries. For example, treatments include closing wounds with sutures, bandaging, splinting limbs, poultices, preventing infection with honey, and immobilizing the body, in the case of spinal injuries. Apart from the step-by-step procedure taken in each case, one may also note the fact that magic is only resorted to in one out of the 48 cases preserved in the text.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus reveals a level of medical knowledge so advanced that in some cases it even surpassed that of the famous Greek physician Hippocrates, who lived 1,000 years later.
Top image: Plates vi and vii of the Edwin Smith Papyrus. Source: Jeff Dahl / Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
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