In the year 1862, an astonishing document was uncovered in Egypt. This ancient papyrus is still considered to be one of the most vital sources that give an insight into the medical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians.
Known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus is considered to be one of the most important scientific document to have ever existed in the history of mankind. Its survival is nothing short of a miracle, and it has offered unrivalled insight into how the ancient Egyptians understood health and injury.
It is even arranged in a recognizably practical fashion, starting with the head and gradually proceeding downwards to the thorax, spine and the other regions of the human body. This was not some esoteric text, this was practical medicine, thousands of years ago.
And it is the oldest surviving surgical document we have.
What is the Edwin Smith Papyrus?
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the oldest surviving text relating to trauma that has ever existed. It dates back to the seventeenth century BC, making it more than 3,500 years old. It is commonly referred to as the secret book that is used by physicians and doctors.
One of the distinguishing features of the medical text is that it adopts a logical and scientific approach to the field of medicine in the ancient Egyptian context. Laid out in a scroll which is over fifteen feet (4.6 m) in length, it offers a practical guide to diagnosis and treatment, refreshingly free from religion.
It is not entirely free from magic, however. While a major section of the papyrus revolves around surgery and trauma, spells do appear but have been used only in cases involving terminal illnesses. However, other cases where treatment is possible are dealt with in a rational and pragmatic manner.
It is believed that the papyrus was developed as a textbook. It contains clinical cases involving head injuries and other kinds of injuries to the body.
Acquired in Luxor in Egypt in the year 1862 by Edwin Smith, hence its name, perhaps the most interesting and baffling part of the papyrus comes at the very end. An unfinished line is the last thing that has been written in it, and there is no name of the author of the work. Due to the abrupt ending of the document, many believe it to be an incomplete version of an earlier, original manuscript.
The practical medicine contained in this document was obviously of such value to the Egyptians that copies were made.
What Does it Say?
The papyrus contains a total of 48 clinical cases that are related to different organs of the human body. The contents contain a proper description of the examination, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis pertaining to every case.
The text gives a glimpse into the knowledge that Egyptians possessed in ancient times relating to the connection of the pulse to the human heart and of the chief functions of the bowels, stomach and larger blood vessels. It shows a degree of anatomical sophistication which belies tis extreme age.
The practical information that has been captured in the Edwin Smith Papyrus has played a key role in magnifying its relevance even in the 21st century. Immense clarity has been presented in the document, which helps to explain the specific kinds of traumas with utmost clarity and precision.
The detailed procedures that have been presented in the document can still be considered to be of high relevance in the field of medicine that can help in treating diverse types of traumas in individuals. The writings are entirely scientific in nature that is based on rational observation in the field of medicine.
The precision with which the scientific details have been captured in the form of text shows the high level of medical knowledge that the ancient Egyptians possessed which has been ultimately passed on to current participants in the medical discipline.
Ancient Practices, Modern Medicine?
The medical treatises that have been presented in the Edwin Smith Papyrus are considered to be of relevance even today. Although there has been a considerable change in the demographics of people and techniques adopted to make the diagnosis, the rationale that has been documented is still valid and holds good in medical and science settings.
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Each of the cases that have been documented in the papyrus is highly detailed and encompasses an accurate description of the medical conditions and traumas. It can be used as a useful resource that can enable professionals in the medical field to get a better insight into the signs and symptoms that individuals may encounter while experiencing trauma.
The use of rational thinking and scientific knowledge is what makes the Edwin Smith Papyrus a useful resource in the area of medicine. Although itself ancient, the details that have been captured hold true ad help in identifying and treating trauma.
Many believe the papyrus to be the ultimate proof of the birth of rational thinking, which influenced the quality of life of ancient Egyptians. They may have taken the death cult thing too far, but it seems their approach to living patients was commendably practical.
The usefulness of the document in treatment of injury and disease shows that the Egyptians did not simply rely on their gods to help in cases of illness, as was the case for many later cultures. Their insight and observation-based diagnosis approach bears many similarities with modern medicine.
Although in current times it is a well-known fact that physical examination along with rational thinking can help to assess a person’s health properly, the awareness of these details thousands of years back is extraordinary. The Edwin Smith Papyrus shed light on the fact that ancient Egyptians not only relied on magic spells to improve their health condition, but they relied on scientific knowledge when it came to their health and well-being.
The medical knowledge that has been captured in the ancient medical text is regarded as important even in modern medicine. The backing of scientific concepts and analytical thinking is what makes the work highly useful for professionals working in the field of medicine.
Regardless of the ancient nature of the Edwin Smith Papyrus, it has played a key role in serving as the blueprint and shape the trajectory of modern medicine.
Top Image: The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the oldest surviving surgical document. Source: Jeff Dahl / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri