The Medical Papyri—An Annotated List

A doctor today may refer to their paper diploma as a “sheepskin”, perhaps unaware that this refers to parchment. In ancient Egypt such a diploma would have been written on papyrus, also derived from a plant, in this case the pith of Cyperus papyrus. Papyrus was abundant in the wetlands along the Nile Delta and was used for 4000 years to make boats, baskets, sandals—and for archiving the collective knowledge of a civilization, including several millennia of empiric medicine.

Papyrus

Once papyrus replaced stone as a writing medium, it prevailed for four millennia, until just prior to the Christian era when parchment (sheepskin) and vellum (calf skin) were developed. Surviving scraps of papyrus are treated with reverence, and referenced by name—according to finder, owner, place of discovery or where currently kept.

The surviving record of medical lore in ancient Egypt consists of a mere dozen papyri, spanning the 2nd to 21st dynasties. We present here an annotated list with images and geography. For more detail the venerable article by Chauncey D. Leake (1952): The Old Egyptian Medical Papyri is a good place to start.

 Seated Scribe

Seated Scribe

Medicine in Ancient Egypt

But first, a brief survey[ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_medicine] of medical practices. “Medical matters in old Egypt” were, according to Siegrist, of two stripes: ’magico-religious’ and ‘empirico-rational’ medicine, just as in modern society. The writings were a mystery until Champollion cracked the hieroglyphic code using the Rosetta Stone. But the new medium of papyrus called for a new method—the use of reed pens to write flowingly in hieratic. Red ink was used for headings, black for content.

Ozymandias.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Once decoded, and studied we learn in the words of Leake: “It is surprising that there is not more evidence of supernaturalism in the medical papyri. The various ‘recitals' may reasonably be interpreted as ‘prayers’ for skill and guidance, … the evidence from the papyri indicates a relatively high standard of medical practice…

Ancient Egyptian doctors (swnw) were referred to as far back as the 27th century BC, the first known of whom is Imhotep. 

 Invocation of Imenhotep

Invocation of Imenhotep

Egyptian medical therapeutics was empirical. They used whatever experience taught them might work, regardless of source and without distraction by theory.

In the later medical papyri, over two-thirds of prescriptions for internal use specified a dose. When compared to a rate of only15% in the earlier Kahun Papyrus, we have the suggestion of an evolving pharmacology that incorporated ideas of dose-response and toxicity. 

Drug measurement was not so primitive as one might think. They had balance scales, but drug measurements were usually done by estimating volume. The quantity ro was a mouthful and deliveredwith a spoon. A “tablespoon of medicine” remains a popular prescription. It’s no coincidence that the symbol for ro looks like a mouth.

ro.jpeg

Some of these agents have been traced through Greek Roman Arabic and Medieval times up to the Enlightenment era.  As Leake wrote: “… many of the popular 16th and 17th century English formularies, are similar to the make-up of the Hearst and the Berlin Medical Papyri.” Empiricism persists to this day.

As to ‘surgical’ procedures, we read of debridement, dressings, immobilization, and poultices, such as fresh meat applied to lacerations. Despite an intimate awareness of gross anatomy from mummifications, invasive surgery remained for the future. Prosthetic toes, eyeballs and false teeth have been found.

Medical History Tour - Medical Papyri
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The Medical Papyri

Although in only one case is the author identified as a physician, it is clear that these papyri were compilations of professional medical writings, as opposed to popular superstition. There are twelve such.

Kahun Papyrus

The oldest, from 1950BC, it is know as the gynecological papyrus. It is in hieratic, except for a hieroglyphic portion that deals with veterinary medicine. We learn how to assess fertility, prevent conception and what to prescribe for pelvic discomfort. One of the three sections is devoted to pregnancy. As a medical text, it is pre-dated only by a Sumerian clay tablet from the 3rd millennium.

Ramesseum Papyri

These are named after a temple celebrating Ramses and dates to 1900BC. The hieroglyphs deal with both medical and gynecological topics. The most notorious entry speaks of crocodile dung as a contraceptive. Treatment of burns, pediatrics and musculoskeletal conditions are addressed.

Edwin Smith Papyrus

Written around 1600 BC, it is the oldest text on trauma surgery. It was purchased by Egyptologist Edwin Smith at Luxor (Thebes) in 1862 and donated by his daughter, residing eventually at the New York Academy of Medicine. In hieratic, it is a well organized collection of cases, abruptly ending in the middle of the 48th. Each case is organized by heading, exam, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. Most of them are injuries to head, neck, chest and spine, as might be sustained in fighting,

If you want to unroll the Smith Papyrus yourself, The NLM will let you do it if you have Flash up and running.

Ebers Papyrus

This, the longest of the medical papyri, was acquiredby Georg Ebers from Smith in 1872, who bought it ten years earlier. Originating in Luxor (Thebes), it is the jewel of the medical papyri. While it exhibits some theological tendencies and can wax poetic, it also contains the first known purely theoretical speculations about health and disease. 

Its 877 paragraphs cover contain over 800 prescriptions and covers :

… anasacra, leprosy, fevers, dysentery, different kinds of worms, heart disease, dropsy, faintness, rheumatism, stiffness of joints and limbs, liver diseases, polyuria (possibly diabetes), intestinal obstructions, gangrene, burns, blisters, affection of the ears, nose, tongue, gums and teeth, sections on how to stimulate hair growth, diseases of the breast, gynecological diseases, contraceptive measures, and methods to help childbirth and gonorrhea.

Here is an exampleof a remedy: {Medicine: a Treasury of Art and Literature. Ratzan et al.)

“When thou examinest the obstruction in his abdomen and thou findest that he is not in a condition to leap the Nile his stomach is swollen and his chest asthmatic…Do thou cause an emptying by means of a medicinal remedy. Make him therefore: 

Wormwood 1/8, Elderberries 1/16, sebesten 1/8, sasa-chips 1/8

Cook in beer…and let the patient drink.

 Ebers, Luxor

Ebers, Luxor

 Ebers Papyrus

Ebers Papyrus

 Museum Leipzig

Museum Leipzig

Hearst Papyrus

The publishing magnate, Randolph Hearst financed an expedition to Egypt 1899, lead by George Reisner. The papyrus was given to Reisner. Also in hieratic, a third of the text overlaps with the Ebers papyrus. There is a chapter on bone afflictions.

London Papyrus

Discovered at the Temple of Tebmut, it dates to 1350BC. It consists of many prescriptions. More than half of it is foreign and magical in perspective. 

Berlin (Brugsch) Papyrus

Discovered by Giuseppe Passalacqua in Saqqara in 1300BC, this is mostly a formulary, many similar to Ebers and Hearst papyri. Without diminishing its historical significance, an editorial perspective shows it to be a sloppy copy of the Ebers papyrus.

It is unique amongst the known medical papyri for being attributed to a physician by name—Neterhotep.

Carlsberg Papyrus

This is collage of hieratic, demotic, hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions, dating from 2000BC to the 1st century AD. The main topics are eye diseases and pregnancy. 

Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus

Dating from 1200 BC, it deals with magic, headaches, and anorectal conditions. Chester Beatty gave it to the British Museum.

Brooklyn Papyrus

We are concerned here with snakes and their bites. Cleopatra could have used this. 

Erman Papyrus

From 1660BC, it was published by Adolph Erman. It deals with infants and childbirth.

Leyden Papyrus

This is the most recent of the papyri, written in Greek around the 3rd century AD. It shows a reversion to magical thinking in medicine.

Taken together, these documents justify a respect for the medicine of ancient Egypt. It was a rationale exploitation of empiricism in the pre-scientific era. 

Wild Speculation

I leave the topic with a wild speculation: that the volcanic eruptions of 3600 years ago, the Minoan eruption—centered on what is now the Aegean island of Santorini—was reflected in the medical texts of six of these papyri, as treatments for resulting skin and respiratory conditions. 

 Santorini

Santorini

The thesis was put forth in an article behind a pay wall. I didn’t read more than the abstract. But, if someone else wants to pop for 35.95 to read the evidence put forth, do let me know what you think.

Oh, and if you have any of the missing latitudes and longitudes for places of discovery, send them along please. {Carlsberg, London, Beatty, Brooklyn and Erman}

email us at info@medicalhistorytour.com.

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