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Ancient Egyptian Medical Papyri

With today's advances in technology we can learn much with the aid of modern computers and elaborate software about the whole question of medicine as practised in ancient times. This is indeed being done today but another and probably a greater source of information is the medical papyri which exist and provide us with a great insight into this fascinating subject as well as raising many questions which we don't always have ready answers to. In this article, I will try to identify the major papyri and give some relevant information about their history and what is contained in them. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive study of these documents but an opportunity to kindle some interest in the subject and to open a different avenue of study and research for those of you who want to do this.

Most of these documents relate to diseases, remedies and the structure of the body as well as incantations and magic spells used as treatments in many cases. Most of these were discovered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and no doubt these are only the tips of the iceberg. Many tracts must have been destroyed down through the years by natural phenomenon as well as by human intervention such as tomb robbers, military invasions and such like. The major study of these papyri has been undertaken in Berlin between 1954 - 1973 in the  Outline of the medicine of the Ancient Egyptians (Medizin der alten Agypter). The following are the main papyri taken into account for these studies.

  1. The Edwin Smith Papyrus
  2. This was purchased by Smith in the 1860's and is now housed in the New York Academy of Sciences. Smith's activity in Egypt is somewhat of a mystery, being described as an adventurer, a money-lender and a dealer in antiques. It was also said he was an expert in forged antiques. Smith made an initial translation but it was later translated Von Daines, Grapon and Westendorf into German for  Medizin der alten Agypter . This papyrus is comprised of 17 pages (377 lines) on the recto and 5 pages (92 lines) on the verso. The recto refers to the front of the papyrus and verso means the back and most of these papyri contain inscriptions on both sides. This papyrus is said to date from 1550 BC and was taken from the tomb of a physician. Most papyri concentrate on giving us the remedies for certain diseases with the diagnoses having already taken place but here we can see the doctor's approach to examining the patient, which is a unique view. In many of these papyri it is difficult to match up the remedies with a particular ailment. In this one most of the examples concentrate on trauma such as head wounds. As well as examination, leading to diagnoses, various treatments are suggested and we can see this in relation various parts of the body such as head, jaws, neck, spine, arms and legs. Unlike most of the other papyri this one is relatively free of magic and spells. It is difficult to know if this was a typical manual to cater for the normal expected cases one would encounter in war situations or whether it was just an example of a physician dealing with his own everyday patients.

  3. The Ebers Papyrus
  4. Again this was purchased by Edwin Smith in 1862 and is said to have come from a tomb on the West Bank and maybe from the same tomb as the Edwin Smith papyrus above. It gets its name from Georg Ebers who purchased it in 1872. It is now housed in the University Library in Leipzig. Various translations were made with Dr. Cyril Bryan translating it into English from the German translation of Dr. Joachim's (1890). Dr. Ebbell made a further translation to English in 1937 although some parts of this work has been challenged on account of some dubious translations. The papyrus is 110 pages and dates back to 1534 BC to the reign of Amenhotep I. This document has a more haphazard order than the Smith papyrus and unlike that document it deals with remedies only of the skin, belly and other parts of the body. The final part deals with surgical procedures, ulcers and tumors. It is generally difficult to follow and there may have been many sources with the scribe not entering remedies and ailments in the correct order. Again like the previous example there is some content on the reverse side.

  5. The Kahun Papyrus
  6. This is kept in University College London and was discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1889. It is dated to 1825 BC to the reign of Amenemhat III. It is badly fragmented and deals mainly with gynaecological matters. In some ways it is similar in style to the Edwin Smith papyrus in that it was instructions to follow for various ailments such as women suffering from teeth and gum problems.

  7. The Hearst Papyrus
  8. This is named after the mother of newspaper heir William Randolph Hearst, who funded much of the work carried out by the University of California in Egypt. The papyrus was given to the Expedition in 1901 by a peasant, in exchange for some waste soil he required as fertilizer. It dates from the 18th Dynasty and the reign of Tuthmosis III and is kept in the University of California. It contains 18 pages (260 paragraphs) and concentrates on ailments of the urinary system, blood, hair and bites.

  9. The Chester Beatty Papyri
  10. Sir Alfred Chester Beatty was a millionaire industrialist and was a great collector of books, manuscripts and art and gave 19 papyri to the British Museum. These were found at Deir el-Medina (the workers village) in 1928 and is part of a wider collection now dispersed between a number of museums, the Ashmolean, the French Institute in Cairo and the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. This started off as a private collection by the scribe Qen-her-khepeshef in the 19th Dynasty and passed on down through his family until there were placed in a tomb. They have undergone extensive reconstruction and translated into English by Gardiner in 1935. The content comprises of many magical incantations against headache. There is much space given over to rectal ailments with various remedies and incantations but there is some doubt as to the exact ailments these refer to.

  11. The Berlin Papyrus
  12. This papyrus was aquired by Giuseppe Passalacqua in Seqqara and was sold on to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia with other objects in 1827 for the Berlin Museum. The style indicates that it is 19th Dynasty and Wreszinski translated it into German in 1909. This comprises of 24 pages (21 to the front and 3 on the back) and bears a great similarity to the Ebers papyrus.

  13. The London Medical Papyrus
  14. This pasted to the British Museum in 1860 having been in the possession of the Royal Institute of London prior to that. It dates to the reign of Tutankhamun and is in very poor condition. It is comprised of 19 pages, mostly concentrating on magical spells.

  15. The Ramesseum Papyri
  16. This gets its name from having been discovered in the great temple of the Ramesseum. Gardiner thinks it relates to the 13th Dynasty (Early Second Intermediate Period). In total 17 papyri were found but the main content is concentrated in parts III, IV and V which are written in vertical columns which is completely new. They contain sections on diseases of the eyes, gynecology, diseases of children, muscles and tendons.

  17. Carlsberg Papyrus

This papyrus dates from the 19th/20th Dynasties by its style but very little is known about it. I t is the property of the Carlsberg Foundation and is housed in the Egyptological Institute of the University of Copenhagen. It deals with eye diseases and pregnancy and there some similarity between it and both the Kahun and Berlin papyri.

10. The Brooklyn Papyrus

This papyrus concentrates exclusively on snake bites and dates to the 30th Dynasty or Early Ptolemic Period and is housed in the Brooklyn Museum. It speaks about remedies to drive out poison from snakes, scorpions and tarantulas. The style of these remedies relates to that of the Ebers papyrus.

The above all contain major findings that help us study medical practices in ancient times but remedies have also been found on pieces of pottery and ostraca dating from the Amarna Period to the time of Roman occupation. For greater detail on these various papyri please read  Ancient Egyptian Medicine by John F Nunn who deals with this subject in great detail.

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