Edwin Smith Medical papyrus
The Edwin Smith medical papyrus is undoubtedly one of the most important of the medical papyri. It was sold by Mustafa Agha, an Egyptian merchant, dealer and Consular Agent in Luxor to the American, Edwin Smith, a resident in Luxor 1858-1876. Unusually for his time, he had an extensive knowledge of hieratic, which enabled him to make a tentative translation. On his death, it was presented by his daughter to the New York Academy of Medicine.
This papyrus is almost unique, in being virtually free from ‘magic’ and follows the rational lines of examination, diagnosis and treatment. It was thought to come from the tomb of a doctor (swnw) in the Theban Necropolis, that may also have contained the Ebers and the Rhind mathematical papyri as well. It is almost as long as the Ebers and is dated to the same time period, around ca. 1550 BC. Some of the text is written in the archaic classical Middle Egyptian, which popularized the belief that it was written by the great Imhotep, architect of king Djoser. However, this is probably more due to the ancient Egyptian’s wanting it to appear like it had come from antiquity, a time period so admired, especially in this period.
It is the only surviving treatise on medical trauma and its treatment to be found, and is a didactic manual on how to examine, diagnose and treat traumas. These are conveniently described in ascending order of severity, starting at the top of the head and working downwards. This is ‘the same pattern followed by placing various parts of the body, under the protection of the various gods in Spell 42 in the Book of the Dead, and also for the placing of the parts of the body of a cat under divine protection after being stung by a scorpion ‘(Metternich stela, Spell 111). (Nunn, Page 29)
Unfortunately, it finishes very abruptly in the middle of case 48, literally ending mid-sentence. In typical scribal fashion, so as not to waste a valuable material, the verso is also inscribed. It is clearly in a different hand and contains eight incantations, some associated with medicine. Randomly, it then mentions ‘the recipe for a woman with retained menstrual (possibly conceptual, in my opinion) products and two recipes to improve the complexion. There is then a recipe for transforming an old man into a youth and the recto closes with a local application to relieve an obscure illness of the anus.’ (Nunn Page 30)
The definitive translation and interpretation of this papyrus is by Gonzalo M Sanchez and Edmund S Meltzer 2012.
The Ebers Papyrus was originally purchased by Edwin Smith in 1862, at the same time as the Edwin Smith papyrus, supposedly originating from between the legs of a mummy in Assassif. Possibly it came from the same tomb as the Edwin Smith, but by the time its importance was recognized, the finders had died and so the tomb remained unidentified. It was also known as the Edwin Smith papyrus until 1873. In 1872, it was sold to Georg Ebers. He published it in 1873 under his name, as the Ebers papyrus.
Numerous translations and interpretations have been attempted. The one by Dr. Ebbell in 1937, proving very popular, but very inaccurate in his medical diagnosis of conditions described, due to his lack of linguistic capability. For example, translating an injury from an acacia thorn, as a complication of circumcision! (Ebers 732). In 1958 the definitive translation was by Deiness, Grapow and Westendorf in Vol IV I of the Gundriss into German. Ghaliounghui 1987 translated it into English, but never published. It is still being studied.
It is written in a clear hand and is by far the longest of the medical papyri. It is in good condition, and dates to the 9th year of Amenhotep I c. 1534 BCE. It is unusual in the fact that the 110 pages of it are all numbered by the scribe. It is a collection of different medical texts. Unfortunately, the texts are mixed together, with many paragraphs out of order, with some repetition, suggesting different sources were copied and included. Translation and interpretation are compounded further by disease terms specific to the ancient Egyptians (like our ‘dropsy’ or ‘consumption’), that have not been translated yet. The use of generic determinatives for diseases due to for example, worms, where there are numerous possibilities (Guinea, Tape, Round etc).
It covers a multitude of pathological conditions, including; the abdomen, stomach, anus, skin, heart, migraine, eyes, bites (from man and crocodiles), burns, beating and flesh wounds, teeth and tongue, ear, nose and throat, gynaecology, household pests, ulcers, tumours and swellings. The ’knife treatment’, being recommended in ten cases of the last three. Importantly, it has descriptions of the mtw (various vessels within the body including blood vessels, airways, tendons, possibly nerves) that appear to describe a dysfunction of the cardiac system. Basically, it is a compendium from different sources, assembled in a rather random way. In places, it is very similar to the Hearst, Berlin and London Papyri.
— Ancient Egyptian medicine, by John Nunn
Text by: Christina Pearn
— The Edwin Smith Papyrus: Updated Translation of the Trauma Treatise and Modern Medical Commentaries, by Gonzalo M. Sanchez and Edmund S. Meltzer