Egyptian Medical Papyri: History
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Egyptian medical papyri are ancient Egyptian texts written on papyrus which permit a glimpse at medical procedures and practices in ancient Egypt. The papyri give details on disease, 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. The largest study of the medical papyri to date has been undertaken by Humboldt University of Berlin 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.

  • medical procedures
  • medical treatments
  • papyri

1. Discovery and Study of Papyri

These ancient Egyptian texts were written long before their discovery and publication, and many are now owned either privately or preserved at universities all over the world. The first papyri to be discovered would be the Berlin Papyrus, discovered and subsequently published by Heinrich Brugsch in 1863.[1][2] Heinrich was the first to study this papyrus, and a translation did not become available until 1909, published by Walter Wreszinski.[3] In 1875, the Ebers Papyrus, covering a broad concept of general pathology was published. Some 20 years later, the Kahun papyrus was published by F.L. Griffith in 1898, and this was the first published papyri about the practice of gynecology.[1] The Ramesseum papyrus was discovered in the year 1898 at the bottom of a tomb-shaft, and was then left untouched until a few years later.[4] In 1900, Percy Newberry started the process of unrolling and preserving the Ramesseum papyri so that it can be further studied and stored without threat of further wear and tear.[4] In 1905 the Hearst papyrus was published by G.A. Reisner.[1][2] Subsequently, the publication of these papyri inspired Walter Wreszinski to attempt a production of overviews of medicine in ancient Egypt. He first published his first of three parts in 1909, Die Medizin der Alten Aegypter[1], and the following two publications in 1912 and 1913. These were primarily translations with some commentary overviewing the Egyptian medical processes.[1] It wasn't until 1932 that when Warren R Dawson first published an analytical breakdown of medical texts and confusing words and phrases therein that it was discovered some things had been incorrectly translated.[5] Dawson first starts to challenge the previous findings of Reisner and comes to some many conclusions about the meanings of multiple words, and discovers that some of the meanings had been wrong, and corrects them.[2] There is curiosity as to whether or not the medical papyri was more progressive for the world of medicine at the time because of the reliance on non-physical treatments they still relied on.[6] Spells were the earliest forms of medical treatments and believed to be effective before other methods were revealed.[6] With this information it seems logical that physicians and those in the medical field who practiced medicine before surgery and prescription treatments were found effective could not completely abandon the earliest forms of treatments, such as spiritual or magical, but this does not entail a regressive approach to medicine.[6] Some treatments did not require the assistance of alternative methods because they were found to be treated with only physical treatments, such as surgery, which is the focus of the Edwin Smith Papyrus.

2. Main Medical Papyri

2.1. Kahun Papyrus

Dated to circa 1800 BCE, the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus is the oldest known medical text in Egypt. It was found at El-Lahun by Flinders Petrie in 1889,[7] first translated by F. Ll. Griffith 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, such as gynaecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, and contraception.[8] It does not describe surgery. Kahun papyri is efficiently divided into three different sections.[9] These sections are there to provide a guideline on the interaction between patient and physician. The first being what are the symptoms, the second being how the physician should consult the patient along with diagnoses, and lastly a treatment is offered or advised.[9]

2.2. Ramesseum Papyri

The Ramesseum medical papyri consist of 17 individual papyri that were found in the great temple of the Ramesseum. The Papyri was buried under a brick magazine discovered by Flinders Petrie and James Quibell in 1895.[10] They concentrate on the eyes, gynecology, paediatrics, muscles and tendons.[8][11]

2.3. Edwin Smith Papyrus