Medical papyri

Medical papyri

Ask a question about 'Medical papyri'
Start a new discussion about 'Medical papyri'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
Egyptian medical papyri are ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in what is now the modern country of Egypt. Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh...

ian texts written on papyrus which permit a glimpse at medical procedures and practices
Ancient Egyptian medicine
The medicine of the ancient Egyptians is some of the oldest documented. From the beginnings of the civilization in the until the Persian invasion of 525 BC, Egyptian medical practice went largely unchanged and was highly advanced for its time, including simple non-invasive surgery, setting of...

 in ancient Egypt. The papyri give details on disease
A disease is an abnormal condition affecting the body of an organism. It is often construed to be a medical condition associated with specific symptoms and signs. It may be caused by external factors, such as infectious disease, or it may be caused by internal dysfunctions, such as autoimmune...

, diagnosis, and remedies of disease, which include herbal remedies, surgery, and magical spells. It is thought there were more medical papyri, but many have been lost due to grave robbing
Grave robbing
Grave robbery, grave robbing, or tomb raiding is the act of uncovering a tomb or crypt to steal artifacts or personal effects. Someone who engages in this act is a grave robber or tomb raider...

. The largest study of the medical papyri to date has been undertaken by Berlin University and was titled Medizin der alten Ägypter ("Medicine of ancient Egypt").

Early Egyptian medicine was based mostly on a mixture of magic and religious spells. Most commonly "cured" by use of amulets or magical spells, the illnesses were thought to be caused by spiteful behavior or actions. Afterwards, doctors performed various medical treatments if necessary. The instructions for these medical rituals were later inscribed on papyrus scrolls by the priests performing the actions.

Kahun Papyrus

Dated to circa 1800 BCE, the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus
Kahun Gynecological Papyrus
The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus is the oldest known medical text of any kind. Dated to about 1800 BCE, it deals with women's health—gynaecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, contraception, etc.It was found at El-Lahun by Flinders Petrie in 1889 and first translated by F. Ll...

 is the oldest known medical text. It was found at El-Lahun
Located in the Faiyum, Egypt, el-Lahun or Kahun is the workers' village associated with the pyramid of Senusret II . It is located near the modern village of el-Lahun , and is often known by that name...

 by Flinders Petrie
William Matthew Flinders Petrie
William Matthew Flinders Petrie FRS , commonly known as Flinders Petrie, was an English Egyptologist and a pioneer of systematic methodology in archaeology and preservation of artifacts...

 in 1889, first translated by F. Ll. Griffith
Francis Llewellyn Griffith
Francis Llewellyn Griffith was an eminent British Egyptologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.F. Ll. Griffith was born in Brighton on 27 May 1862 where his father, Rev. Dr. John Griffith, was Principal of Brighton College. After schooling at Brighton College , then privately by his...

 in 1893, and published in The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob. The papyrus contains 35 separate paragraphs relating to women's health
Women's health
Women's health refers to health issues specific to human female anatomy. These often relate to structures such as female genitalia and breasts or to conditions caused by hormones specific to, or most notable in, females. Women's health issues include menstruation, contraception, maternal health,...

, such as gynaecological
Gynaecology or gynecology is the medical practice dealing with the health of the female reproductive system . Literally, outside medicine, it means "the science of women"...

 diseases, fertility, pregnancy, and contraception. It does not describe surgery.

Edwin Smith Papyrus

Dated to circa 1600 BCE, the Edwin Smith Papyrus
Edwin Smith papyrus
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is an Ancient Egyptian medical text and the oldest known surgical treatise on trauma. It dates to Dynasties 16-17 of the Second Intermediate Period in Ancient Egypt, ca. 1500 BCE. The Edwin Smith papyrus is unique among the four principal medical papyri in existencethat...

 is the only surviving copy of part of an Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in what is now the modern country of Egypt. Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh...

ian textbook
A textbook or coursebook is a manual of instruction in any branch of study. Textbooks are produced according to the demands of educational institutions...

 on trauma
Physical trauma
Trauma refers to "a body wound or shock produced by sudden physical injury, as from violence or accident." It can also be described as "a physical wound or injury, such as a fracture or blow." Major trauma can result in secondary complications such as circulatory shock, respiratory failure and death...

Surgery is an ancient medical specialty that uses operative manual and instrumental techniques on a patient to investigate and/or treat a pathological condition such as disease or injury, or to help improve bodily function or appearance.An act of performing surgery may be called a surgical...

. The papyrus takes its name from the Egyptian archaeologist
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

 Edwin Smith
Edwin Smith (Egyptologist)
Edwin Smith was an American dealer and collector of antiquities who gave his name to an Ancient Egyptian medical papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus....

, who purchased it in the 1860's. The most detailed and sophisticated of the extant medical papyri, it is also the world's oldest surgical text. Written in the hieratic
Hieratic refers to a cursive writing system that was used in the provenance of the pharaohs in Egypt and Nubia that developed alongside the hieroglyphic system, to which it is intimately related...

 script of the ancient Egyptian language
Egyptian language
Egyptian is the oldest known indigenous language of Egypt and a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Written records of the Egyptian language have been dated from about 3400 BC, making it one of the oldest recorded languages known. Egyptian was spoken until the late 17th century AD in the...

, it is thought to be based on material from a thousand years earlier. The document consists of 22 pages (17 pages on the recto, and 5 pages on the verso). 48 cases of trauma are examined, each with a description of the physical examination
Physical examination
Physical examination or clinical examination is the process by which a doctor investigates the body of a patient for signs of disease. It generally follows the taking of the medical history — an account of the symptoms as experienced by the patient...

, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. An important aspect of the text is that it shows that the heart
The heart is a myogenic muscular organ found in all animals with a circulatory system , that is responsible for pumping blood throughout the blood vessels by repeated, rhythmic contractions...

, liver
The liver is a vital organ present in vertebrates and some other animals. It has a wide range of functions, including detoxification, protein synthesis, and production of biochemicals necessary for digestion...

, spleen
The spleen is an organ found in virtually all vertebrate animals with important roles in regard to red blood cells and the immune system. In humans, it is located in the left upper quadrant of the abdomen. It removes old red blood cells and holds a reserve of blood in case of hemorrhagic shock...

, kidney
The kidneys, organs with several functions, serve essential regulatory roles in most animals, including vertebrates and some invertebrates. They are essential in the urinary system and also serve homeostatic functions such as the regulation of electrolytes, maintenance of acid–base balance, and...

s, ureter
In human anatomy, the ureters are muscular tubes that propel urine from the kidneys to the urinary bladder. In the adult, the ureters are usually long and ~3-4 mm in diameter....

s, and bladder
Urinary bladder
The urinary bladder is the organ that collects urine excreted by the kidneys before disposal by urination. A hollow muscular, and distensible organ, the bladder sits on the pelvic floor...

 were all known to the Egyptians, along with the fact that the blood vessels were connected to the heart. The entire translation is available online.

Ebers Papyrus

The Ebers Papyrus was also purchased by Edwin Smith in 1862. It takes its name from Georg Ebers
Georg Ebers
Georg Moritz Ebers , German Egyptologist and novelist, discovered the Egyptian medical papyrus, of ca. 1550 BCE, named for him at Luxor in the winter of 1873–74...

 who purchased the papyrus in 1872. The papyrus dates to around 1550BC and covers 110 pages, making it the lengthiest of the medical papyri. The papyrus covers many different topics including; dermatology
Dermatology is the branch of medicine dealing with the skin and its diseases, a unique specialty with both medical and surgical aspects. A dermatologist takes care of diseases, in the widest sense, and some cosmetic problems of the skin, scalp, hair, and nails....

, digestive diseases
Digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into smaller components that are more easily absorbed into a blood stream, for instance. Digestion is a form of catabolism: a breakdown of large food molecules to smaller ones....

, traumatic diseases
Physical trauma
Trauma refers to "a body wound or shock produced by sudden physical injury, as from violence or accident." It can also be described as "a physical wound or injury, such as a fracture or blow." Major trauma can result in secondary complications such as circulatory shock, respiratory failure and death...

, dentistry
Dentistry is the branch of medicine that is involved in the study, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of diseases, disorders and conditions of the oral cavity, maxillofacial area and the adjacent and associated structures and their impact on the human body. Dentistry is widely considered...

 and gynecological conditions. It makes many references to treating ailments with spells or religious techniques
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

. One of the most important findings of this papyrus are the references to migraine
Migraine is a chronic neurological disorder characterized by moderate to severe headaches, and nausea...

s which shows the condition dates back to this time.

Hearst Papyrus

The Hearst Papyrus
Hearst papyrus
The Hearst Papyrus, also called the Hearst Medical Papyrus, is one of the medical papyri of ancient Egypt. It was named after the mother of press magnate William Randolph Hearst. The papyrus contains 18 pages of medical prescriptions written in hieratic Egyptian writing, concentrating on treatments...

 was offered in 1901 to the Hearst Expedition in Egypt. It is dated around 2000 BC, though doubts subsist about its authenticity. It concentrated on treatments for problems dealing with the urinary system
Urinary system
The urinary system is the organ system that produces, stores, and eliminates urine. In humans it includes two kidneys, two ureters, the bladder and the urethra.-Kidney:...

, blood, hair, and bites. It has been extensively studied since its publication in 1905.

Other medical papyri

Other medical papyri include:
  • The Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus
    Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus
    The Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus is one of the extant medical papyri from ancient Egypt. It is dedicated to magical incantations against headaches and remedies for anorectal ailments,Banov 1965, from the title . and is dated around 1200 BC...

    – This papyrus is named after Sir Alfred Chester Beatty
    Alfred Chester Beatty
    Sir Alfred Chester Beatty Seanad 1985: "Chester Beatty died at the Princess Grace Clinic, Monte Carlo, on 19 January 1968, [...]" . was a mining magnate and millionaire, often called the "King of Copper". U.S.-born, he was naturalised British in 1933, and made an honorary citizen of Ireland in 1957...

     who donated 19 papyri to the British Museum
    British Museum
    The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

    . The remedies in these texts are generally related to magic
    Magic (paranormal)
    Magic is the claimed art of manipulating aspects of reality either by supernatural means or through knowledge of occult laws unknown to science. It is in contrast to science, in that science does not accept anything not subject to either direct or indirect observation, and subject to logical...

     and focus on conditions that involve headache
    A headache or cephalalgia is pain anywhere in the region of the head or neck. It can be a symptom of a number of different conditions of the head and neck. The brain tissue itself is not sensitive to pain because it lacks pain receptors. Rather, the pain is caused by disturbance of the...

    s and anorectal ailments
    Colorectal surgery is a field in medicine, dealing with disorders of the rectum, anus, and colon. The field is also known as proctology, but the term is outdated in the more traditional areas of medicine...

  • The London Medical Papyrus
    London Medical Papyrus
    The London Medical Papyrus is an Ancient Egyptian papyrus in the British Museum, London, England. The writings of this papyrus are of 61 recipes, of which 25 are classified as medical the remainder are of magic. The medical foci of the writing are skin complaints, eye complaints, bleeding and burns...

    – This is located in the British Museum and dates back to Tutankhamun
    Tutankhamun , Egyptian , ; approx. 1341 BC – 1323 BC) was an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty , during the period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom...

    . Although in poor condition, study of it has found it to focus on magical spells as remedy for disease.
  • The Ramesseum Papyri – These consist of 17 individual papyri that were found in the great temple of the Ramesseum
    The Ramesseum is the memorial temple of Pharaoh Ramesses II . It is located in the Theban necropolis in Upper Egypt, across the River Nile from the modern city of Luxor...

    . They concentrate on the eyes, gynecology, paediatrics, muscle
    Muscle is a contractile tissue of animals and is derived from the mesodermal layer of embryonic germ cells. Muscle cells contain contractile filaments that move past each other and change the size of the cell. They are classified as skeletal, cardiac, or smooth muscles. Their function is to...

    s and tendon
    A tendon is a tough band of fibrous connective tissue that usually connects muscle to bone and is capable of withstanding tension. Tendons are similar to ligaments and fasciae as they are all made of collagen except that ligaments join one bone to another bone, and fasciae connect muscles to other...

  • The Carlsberg Papyrus
    Carlsberg papyrus
    The Carlsberg papyrus is an ancient Egyptian medical papyrus. Mainly written in hieratic and demotic, with some components written in Ancient Greek and hieroglyphics, the Carlsberg Papyrus is the most abundant ancient Egyptian medical papyri, containing more substantial amounts of artifacts of the...

    – It is the property of the Carlsberg Foundation
    Carlsberg Foundation
    Carlsberg Foundation was founded by J. C. Jacobsen in 1876 and owns 30,3% of the shares in Carlsberg Group and has 74,2% of the voting power.The purpose of the foundation is to run and fund Carlsberg Laboratory, the museum at Frederiksborg Palace, to fund scientific research, run the Ny Carlsberg...

    . The papyrus covers diseases of the eye and pregnancy.
  • The Greater Berlin Papyrus, also known as the Brugsch Papyrus
    Brugsch Papyrus
    The Brugsch Papyrus , also known as the Greater Berlin Papyrus, is an important ancient Egyptian medical papyrus. It was discovered by Giuseppe Passalacqua in Saqqara, Egypt. Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia acquired it in 1827 for the Berlin Museum, where it is still housed...

    (Pap. Berl. 3038) – Discovered by Giuseppe Passalacqua. It consists of 24 pages and is very similar to the Ebers Papyrus. Later sold to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia
    Prussia was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organized and effective army. Prussia shaped the history...

     with other objects in 1827 for the Berlin Museum, the Greater Berlin Papyrus was translated into German in 1909. (Not to be confused with the Berlin Papyrus
    Berlin papyrus
    The Berlin Papyrus 6619, commonly known as the Berlin Papyrus, is an ancient Egyptian papyrus document from the Middle Kingdom. This papyrus was found at the ancient burial ground of Saqqara in the early 19th century CE....

     - number 6619.)

  • The Berlin Papyrus
    Berlin papyrus
    The Berlin Papyrus 6619, commonly known as the Berlin Papyrus, is an ancient Egyptian papyrus document from the Middle Kingdom. This papyrus was found at the ancient burial ground of Saqqara in the early 19th century CE....

    and the Ramesseum Papyrus IV cover much of the same ground as the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, often giving identical prescriptions.

  • The Brooklyn Papyrus
    Brooklyn Papyrus
    The Brooklyn Papyrus, otherwise known as the Brooklyn Medical Papyrus, is an ancient Egyptian medical papyrus believed to have been created during the thirtieth dynasty of Egypt. The papyrus describes ailments for poisons derived from snakes, scorpions and tarantulas. Currently residing in the...

    – Focusing mainly on snakebites, the Brooklyn Papyrus speaks of remedial methods for poisons obtained from snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. The Brooklyn Papyrus currently resides in the Brooklyn Museum
    Brooklyn Museum
    The Brooklyn Museum is an encyclopedia art museum located in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. At 560,000 square feet, the museum holds New York City's second largest art collection with roughly 1.5 million works....


Further reading

  • Leake, Chauncey (1952). The Old Egyptian Medical Papyri. University of Kansas
    University of Kansas
    The University of Kansas is a public research university and the largest university in the state of Kansas. KU campuses are located in Lawrence, Wichita, Overland Park, and Kansas City, Kansas with the main campus being located in Lawrence on Mount Oread, the highest point in Lawrence. The...

    . (Link to open access, full-text PDF file).