Egyptian medical papyri

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 Berlin University and was titled Medizin der alten Ägypter ("Medicine of ancient Egypt").[1]

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.[2]

Main medical papyri

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,[3] 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.[1] It does not describe surgery.

Ramesseum Papyri

The Ramesseum Papyri – These consist of 17 individual papyri that were found in the great temple of the Ramesseum. They concentrate on the eyes, gynecology, paediatrics, muscles and tendons.[1][4]

Edwin Smith Papyrus

Dated to circa 1600 BCE, the Edwin Smith Papyrus is the only surviving copy of part of an Ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery. The papyrus takes its name from the Egyptian archaeologist Edwin Smith, who purchased it in the 1860s.[5] The most detailed and sophisticated of the extant medical papyri, it is also the world's oldest surgical text. Written in the hieratic script of the ancient Egyptian language,[6] it is thought to be based on material from a thousand years earlier.[7] 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, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis.[1]

An important aspect of the text is that it shows that the heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, ureters, and bladder 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 who purchased the papyrus in 1872. The papyrus dates to around 1550BC and covers 110 pages, making it the lengthiest of the medical papyri.[1] The papyrus covers many different topics including; dermatology, digestive diseases, traumatic diseases, dentistry and gynecological conditions. It makes many references to treating ailments with spells or religious techniques. One of the most important findings of this papyrus are the references to migraines which shows the condition dates back to this time.[8]

Hearst Papyrus

The Hearst Papyrus 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, blood, hair, and bites. It has been extensively studied since its publication in 1905.[1] [9]

London Papyrus

The London Medical Papyrus – This is located in the British Museum and dates back to Tutankhamun. Although in poor condition, study of it has found it to focus on magical spells as remedy for disease.[1]

Berlin Papyrus

The Greater Berlin Papyrus, also known as the Brugsch Papyrus (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 with other objects in 1827 for the Berlin Museum, the Greater Berlin Papyrus was translated into German in 1909.[1]

Carlsberg Papyrus

The Carlsberg Papyrus – It is the property of the Carlsberg Foundation. The papyrus covers diseases of the eye and pregnancy.[1]

Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus

The Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus – This papyrus is named after Sir Alfred Chester Beatty who donated 19 papyri to the British Museum. The remedies in these texts are generally related to magic and focus on conditions that involve headaches and anorectal ailments.[1]

Brooklyn Papyrus

The Brooklyn Papyrus – 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.[1][10]

Table of ancient Egyptian medical papyri

Papyrus Name Other names Dating Language Medical specialties Contents Scribe/Author Date & place of discovery place of preserving size image
Edwin Smith PapyrusEdwin Smith Surgical Papyrusdates to Dynasties 16-17 of the Second Intermediate Period in Ancient Egypt, ca. 1500 BCE but believed to be a copy from Old Kingdom, 3000-2500 BCEHieraticThe oldest known surgical treatise on traumaThe vast majority of the papyrus is concerned with trauma and surgery, with short sections on gynecology and cosmetics on the verso. On the recto side, there are 48 cases of injury. The verso side consists of eight magic spells and five prescriptions. The oldest known surgical treatise on traumaAttributed by some to ImhotepLuxor, Egypt before 1862New York Academy of Medicinea scroll 4.68 metres (15.4 ft) in length. The recto (front side) has 377 lines in 17 columns, while the verso (backside) has 92 lines in five columns
Ebers PapyrusPapyrus Ebersc. 1550 BC but believed to be a copy from earlier texts of 3400 BCHieraticMedicine, Obstetrics & gynecology & surgeryThe scroll contains some 700 magical formulas and remedies, chapters on contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy and other gynecological matters, intestinal disease and parasites, eye and skin problems, dentistry and the surgical treatment of abscesses and tumors, bone-setting and burnsN/AAssassif district of the Theban necropolis before 1862Library of University of Leipzig, Germanya 110-page scroll, which is about 20 meters long
Kahun Gynaecological PapyrusKahun Papyrus, Kahun Medical Papyrus, or UC 32057ca. 1800 BCEHieraticMedicine, Obstetrics & gynecology, pediatrics and veterinary medicineThe text is divided into thirty-four sections that deals with women's health—gynecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, contraception, etc. The later Berlin Papyrus and the Ramesseum Papyrus IV cover much of the same ground, often giving identical prescriptionsN/AEl-Lahun by Flinders Petrie in 1889University College London2 gynecologic papyri &1 veterinary payrus
Ramesseum medical papyriRamesseum medical papyri parts III, IV, and V18th century BCHieroglyphic & hieraticMedicine, gynecology, ophthalmology, rheumatology & pediatricsA collection of ancient Egyptian medical documents in parts III, IV, and V, and written in vertical columns that mainly dealt with ailments, diseases, the structure of the body, and supposed remedies used to heal these afflictions. Namely ophthalmologic ailments, gynecology, muscles, tendons, and diseases of childrenN/ARamesseum templeOxford Ashmoulian Museum3 papyri (parts III, IV, V)
Hearst papyrusHearst Medical Papyrus18th Dynasty of Egypt, around time of Tuthmosis III ca. 0000 but believed to have been composed earlier, during the Middle Kingdom, around 2000 BCHieraticUrology, Medicine and bites260 paragraphs on 18 columns in 18 pages of medical prescriptions for problems of urinary system, blood, hair, and bitesN/Adiscovered by an Egyptian peasant of village of Deir el-Ballas before 1901Bancroft Library, University of California18 pages
London Medical PapyrusBM EA 1005919th dynasty 1300 BC or ca. 1629–1628 BCHieraticskin complaints, eye complaints, bleeding, miscarriage and burns61 recipes, of which 25 are classified as medical the remainder are of magicN/AN/ARoyal institute of London
Brugsch PapyrusPap. Berl. 3038, the Greater Berlin Papyrus19th dynasty, and dated ca. 1350 - 1200 BCHieratic ?Medicaldiscussing general medical cases and bears a great similarity to the Ebers papyrus. Some historians believe that this papyrus was used by Galen in his writings24 pages (21 to the front and 3 on the back)N/ADiscovered by an Egyptian in Saqqara before 1827Berlin Museum
Carlsberg papyrusN/Abetween the 19th and 20th dynasties, New Kingdom ; its style relates it to the 12th dynasty. Some fragments date back to ca. 2000 B.C., others — the Tebtunis manuscripts — date back to ca. 1st century A.DHieratic, Demotic. Hieroglyphs and in GreekObstetrics & gynecology, Medicine, Pediatrics & ophthalmologyThe structure of the papyrus bears great resemblance to that of the Kahun and Berlin papyri.N/AN/AN/AEgyptological Institute of the University of Copenhagen
Chester Beatty Medical PapyrusChester Beatty Papyri, Papyrus VI of the Chester Beatty Papyri 46 (Papyrus no. 10686, British Museum), Chester Beatty V BM 10685, VI BM 10686, VII BM 10687, VIII BM 10688, XV BM 10695[dated around 1200 BC : Ramesside Era]HieraticHeadche, and Anorectal disordersMagic spells and medical reciepes for headache & anorectal diseaseN/Astarted off as a private collection by the scribe Qen-her-khepeshef in the 19th Dynasty and passed on down through his family until there were placed in a tombDeir el-Medina (the workers village) in 1928British Museum
Brooklyn Papyrus47.218.48 och 47.218.85, also known as the Brooklyn Medical Papyrusa collection of papyri which belong to the end of the 30th dynasty, dated to around 450 BC, or the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period. However, it is written with the Middle Kingdom style which could suggest its origin might be from the Thirteenth dynasty of EgyptHieraticdeals only with snakes and scorpion bites, and the formula to drive out the poison of such animalsIt speaks about remedies to drive out poison from snakes, scorpions and tarantulas. The style of these remedies relates to that of the Ebers papyrusa scroll of papyrus divided into two parts with some parts missing, its total length is estimated to 175 by 27 centimetres (69 in × 11 in)N/Amight originate from a temple at ancient Heliopolis, discovered before 1885Brooklyn Museum in New York
Erman Papyrus[11]given with the Westcar papyrus to Berlin museumMiddle dated from the beginning of the New Kingdom (16th century BC)Medicine, Magic & Anatomyholds some medical formula and a list of anatomic names (body and viscera) and about 20 magical formulaN/AN/Abefore 1886 ADBerlin Museum
Leiden Papyrus[11]Rijksmuseum, Leiden I 343 - I 34518th-19th dynastyMedicine, MagicIt mostly deals with magical textsN/AN/AN/ARijks museum, Leiden
Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2547Oxyrhynchus 25473rd-centuryHippocratic Oath PapyruFragment of Hippocratic OathN/AN/AN/ANlA

See also


  1. Marry, Austin (January 21, 2004). "Ancient Egyptian Medical Papyri". Ancient Egypt Fan. Eircom Limited. Retrieved 2007-10-24.
  2. "medicine, health and wellbeing". Archived from the original on March 30, 2010. Retrieved 2007-10-26.
  3. Worton, Michael; Wilson-Tagoe, Nana (2004). National Healths: Gender, Sexuality and Health in a Cross-Cultural Context. London: UCL Press/Cavendish Publishing. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-84472-017-0. LCCN 2005295595.
  4. "History of the Library: late Middle Kingdom manuscripts from a tomb under the Ramesseum". Digital Egypt for Universities. University College London. 2003. Retrieved 2007-10-26.
  5. DiPaolo, Anthony C. (November 12, 2009). "The Papyrus Page". Anthony's Egyptology & Archaeology. Osiris Designs. Retrieved 2007-10-24.
  6. Martin, Andrew J. (2005-07-27). "Academy Papyrus to be Exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art" (Press release). The New York Academy of Medicine. Archived from the original on November 27, 2010. Retrieved 2008-08-12.
  7. Wilkins, Robert H. (March 1964). "Neurosurgical Classic-XVII (Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus)". Journal of Neurosurgery. 21 (3): 240–244. doi:10.3171/jns.1964.21.3.0240. translation of 13 cases from Breasted, James Henry (1930) pertaining to injuries of the skull and spinal cord, with commentary.
  8. "A Brief History of Migraines". Migraine and Headaches. Archived from the original on December 6, 2008. Retrieved 2007-10-24.
  9. Hickey, Todd M.; O'Connell, Elisabeth (2003). "The Hearst Medical Papyrus". The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri). Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 2007-10-25.
  10. Owen, Antoinette; Danzing, Rachel (1993). "The History and Treatment of the Papyrus Collection at The Brooklyn Museum". In Espinosa, Robert (ed.). The Book and Paper Group Annual, Volume 12, 1993. American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. ISSN 0887-8978. LCCN 87640038.
  11. Sadek, Ashraf Alexandre (January 2001). "Some Aspects of Medicine in Pharonic Egypt". History of Medicine. Australian Academy of Medicine & Surgery.

Further reading

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