The Edwin Smith Papyrus
This item is an incredible document that shows how medically advanced the Egyptians were 5000 years ago. It describes medical procedures we still use
today. Far from the traditional assumptions of magical mumbo jumbo, it presents a dry and rational approach to injuries. It's pretty amazing
for head and spinal injuries and offers three diagnoses... “an ailment I can treat”, “an ailment I shall contend with”, or
“an ailment which not to be treated.”
This remarkable papyrus, bought in 1862 by the American Egyptologist Edwin Smith in Luxor, Egypt, is an ancient Egyptian surgical treatise. It is
the oldest known medical document; written in the Middle Egyptian hieratic script, it contains 377 lines of text on the recto (front) and 92 on the
verso (back). It is a textbook of surgery, containing systematic and highly detailed descriptions, diagnoses, treatments and prognoses of 48
neurosurgical and orthopaedic cases. The papyrus, which is named after Edwin Smith, is now housed in the New York Academy of
Full text and case studies
1. A wound in his head penetrating to the bone of his skull
2. A gaping wound in his head, penetrating to the bone
3. A gaping wound in his head penetrating to the bone (and) perforating his skull
4. A gaping wound in his head penetrating to the bone (and) splitting his skull
5. A gaping wound in his head ,smashing his skull
6. A gaping wound in his head penetrating the bone of his skull , (and) rending open the brain of his skull
7. A gaping wound in his head penetrating to the bone (and) perforating the sutures of his skull
8. A smash in his skull under the skin of his head
....and so forth
A little history of the papyrus...
Although dated to ~1600BC, it's actually a copy of an earlier document from ~3000-2500BC. Some scholars have wondered if the great
may have been the original author...we'll never know. Like all objects from
history, there's a human element.
In this case, we know that the scribe of the Edwin Smith Papyrus
was suddenly called away
and never returned to complete their work. We can picture him, perhaps writing by the light of an oil lamp, sitting as he copies from another papyrus
over a thousand years older! As a man, he'd be wearing a lot of make-up and perfume. As he laboriously writes the text, he makes many mistakes and
adds corrections and explanations in the margins. If we close our eyes, it's a scene that's easy to imagine...I can feel that desert heat and hear
the flies buzzing around. Perhaps outside, there are the distant sounds of livestock and the bustle of humanity?
In the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word...he stops. I wonder why?
The papyrus contents.
The text features the diagnosis and treatment of a range of injuries from broken jaws and noses to major, terminal head trauma. The treatment of a
broken nose will be familiar to many as it involves stemming the blood using linen (gauze) before the doctor applies force to reset the bone. The
dislocated jaw instructs the doctor to insert his thumbs into the mouth and to use the fingers ('claws') to force it back into place. It list
treatments involving stitches and describes all the major arteries and veins we know of today. It describes the human skull, spinal column and
Bronze Egyptian surgical tools
Case Ten: Instructions concerning a wound above his eyebrow
Examination: If thou examinest a man having a wound above his eyebrow, penetrating to the bone, shouldst palpate his wound, (and) draw together
for him the gash with stitching..
Diagnosis: Thou shouldst say concerning him: "One having a wound above his eyebrow. An aliment which I will treat."
Treatment: Now after thou hast stitched it, thou shouldst bind fresh meat upon it the first day . If thou findest that the stitching of this
wound is loose, thou shouldst draw (it) together for him with two strips (of plaster), and thou shouldst treat it with grease and honey every day
until he recovers.
The doctor couldn't treat everything, but much like our modern equivalents, they'd have a bloody good go at it first! This case describes major
skull trauma and offers several stages of treatment. If each stage fails, the case becomes “an ailment which not to be treated.”
Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus: cases, full text and
Kom Ombo Temple relief
A Brief History of Human Diagnosis
Case Seven: Instructions concerning a gaping wound in his head penetrating to the bone (and) perforating the sutures of his skull .
Examination: If thou examinest a man having a gaping wound in his head, penetrating to the bone, (and) perforating the sutures of his skull,
thou shouldst palpate his wound, (although) he shudders exceedingly. Thou shouldst cause him to lift ; if it is painful for him to open his mouth,
(and) his heart beats feebly ; if thou observe his spittle hanging at his two lips and not falling off, while he discharges blood from both his
nostrils (and) from both his ears; he suffers with stiffness in his neck, (and) is unable to look at his two shoulders and his breast .
First diagnosis: Thou shouldst say regarding him : "One having a gaping wound in his head, penetrating to the bone, (and) perforating the
sutures of his skull; the cord of his mandible is contracted; he discharges blood from both his nostrils (and) from both his ears, while he suffers
with stiffness in his neck. An ailment with which I will contend."
First treatment: Now as soon as thou findest that the cord of that man’s mandible, his jaw, is contracted thou shouldst have made for him
something hot until he is comfortable, so that his mouth opens. Thou shouldst bind it with grease, honey, (and) lint, until thou knowest that he has
reached a decisive point.
The knowledge in the papyrus reaches back 5000 years and represents a snapshot of what the original contained. When the original knowledge of surgery
was committed to text, it would probably have been well-established. Around ~3000-2500BC in Egypt, they were irrigating the land with Nile water. The
national building projects were under way and it's possible (given the later dating of 2500BC) that the Giza Pyramids looked down on the scribes of
the original surgical papyrus. Certainly, by the time our later scribe mysteriously abandoned his work, Egypt was a powerful nation with a landscape
of grand monuments. It must have been something to see!
As I've been reading about Egyptian surgery and how advanced they were, it hasn't been the technology or knowledge that I've found moving. Instead,
it's been the scribe of the papyrus who has made a very human impression. It's like a Marie Celeste moment in time...he put down the work and never
returned to it...
Mathilda's Anthro Blog: Faces of Egypt
Edited to add links
[edit on 23-5-2010 by Kandinsky]