Secrets of the Mummy's Medicine Chest

Secrets of the Mummy’s Medicine Chest

The link leads to an article about the NYAM’s 4,00 year old medical papyrus ( officially the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, the oldest surving medical document in the world) which is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of their exhibit "The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt". (this from yesterday’s New York Times.)  It’s a good artivle with photos and everything (very high-quality photos.) For those of you who don’t care for photos, I clipped the article text and hid it behind the cut below. (No photos, but that’s what the link is for.)

Good stuff, folks.

September 10, 2005

Secrets of the Mummy’s Medicine Chest


The ancient Egyptians left proof of their scientific prowess for
people to marvel at for millennia. Their engineering skills can still
be seen at Giza, their star charts in Luxor, their care for head wounds
on Fifth Avenue.

Head wounds? Yes, and the ancients treated broken arms, cuts, even
facial wrinkles – vanity is not a modern invention – and they used
methods as advanced as rudimentary surgery and a sort of

As for Fifth Avenue, it, like the Valley of the Kings, is a place of
hidden treasures. What researchers call the world’s oldest known
medical treatise, an Egyptian papyrus offering 4,000-year-old wisdom,
has long dwelled in the rare books vault at the New York Academy of

It is an extraordinary remnant of a culture that was already ancient when Rome was new and Athens was a backwater – Egypt’s
stone monuments endure, but the scrolls made of pulped reeds have
mostly been lost. One expert, James H. Breasted, who translated the
papyrus in the 1920’s, called it "the oldest nucleus of really
scientific knowledge in the world." Yet relatively few people know of
it, and fewer have seen it.

It is about to become much better known. After a short trip down
Fifth (insert down-the-Nile metaphor here) to the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, the papyrus will go on public display, probably for the first
time, on Tuesday, as part of the Met’s exhibition "The Art of Medicine
in Ancient Egypt." The show will also include items like a CAT scan of
a mummy, surgical needles and other medical artifacts.

"What they knew about the body is quite striking, though they did
not always understand it," said James Allen, curator of Egyptian art at
the Met, whose new translation of the papyrus appears in the exhibition

The papyrus shows that ancient medics had a pretty good idea that
blood, pumped by the heart, flows around the body – a notion that was
not firmly established until the 17th century – and knew how to stitch
cuts closed. It includes the oldest known descriptions of the effects
of brain injuries, and the meninges, the membrane that covers the brain.

It also advises using honey – a natural bacteria killer – on open
wounds, and giving patients a concoction of willow bark, which contains
a natural painkiller that is chemically similar to aspirin. Mr. Allen
said another ancient Egyptian text recommends putting moldy bread on
wounds, suggesting that doctors had stumbled onto the principle behind
penicillin. "They didn’t know what bacteria was, but they were already
fighting infections," Mr. Allen said. Though Egypt had metal tools, its
doctors used stone knives, because "They could make flint knives much
sharper, and a freshly sharpened flint knife is sterile."

Preparing bodies for mummification gave the Egyptians detailed
knowledge of anatomy and bandaging. They understood that a wound to one
side of the head could cause paralysis on the opposite side of the
body. The papyrus advises doctors to insert fingers into head wounds to
feel what kinds of skull fractures and brain penetration are involved,
and it differentiates between bones that are fractures, splintered or
snapped in two.

Ever since an American, Edwin Smith, bought and translated the
papyrus in the 19th century, it has struck readers as surprisingly
modern. It includes magical incantations, but most of the text takes a
methodical, empirical approach to diagnosis and treatment. Perhaps most
striking is its restraint – the author’s approach is cautious, and in
some cases, the text counsels doing nothing but waiting to see if the
body will heal itself.

"When you think about some of the aggressive treatments recommended
by later authorities, the things done in the Middle Ages that would
make your skin crawl and were sometimes harmful, the papyrus is often
much more in line with our current thinking," said Miriam Mandelbaum,
curator of rare books and manuscripts at the academy of medicine.

The papyrus dates to the 17th century B.C. – about nine centuries
after the great pyramids were built, but about a century before the
time Moses is believed to have lived. While there are fragments of
medical writing that are somewhat older, experts say, none are nearly
as extensive.

The papyrus uses words that were already archaic then, and the
writer explains them, evidence that it is a copy of a document that was
a few hundred years older. Writing with black and red ink, the ancient
scribe used hieratic, a sort of cursive writing that is more abstract
than the familiar picture-writing of hieroglyphics.

The author documented 48 medical cases, starting at the top of the
head and working steadily down as far as the upper arm and chest.
There, the papyrus stops mid-case, so experts assume that originally it
continued to the feet.

It deals mostly with traumatic injuries like punctures and broken
bones, so it may have been a manual for battle wounds, but one case
addresses surgical removal of a growth – a cyst or tumor – on the
chest. There is one lighter bit among all that gravity – someone added
to the original text a recipe for an ointment to make the user look

Smith, a native of Connecticut,
was an amateur Egyptologist when the field was new, learned to read
hieratic and hieroglyphics, and lived in Egypt for many years. In 1862,
he bought a pair of papyrus medical scrolls from a dealer in Luxor;
whether they had been looted from a tomb or library is unknown.

He kept the scroll that the Met will show, known as the Edwin Smith
papyrus. He sold the other one, which is slightly newer, and today it
belongs to a museum in Leipzig, Germany.

When Smith died, in 1906, his daughter gave his papyrus to the
New-York Historical Society, which lent it for several years to the
Brooklyn Museum, and then gave it in 1948 to the Academy of Medicine,
at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

Everyone recognized the importance of the scroll but no one knew
quite what to do with it; the occasional scholar has taken a look,
there is no record that the historical society or the Brooklyn Museum
ever displayed it to the public, and the Academy of Medicine says it
never has. The academy has long been a repository for rarities at the
nexus of history and medicine, like George Washington’s ivory false
teeth and a sample of Alexander Fleming’s original penicillin culture.

Displaying the papyrus safely turns out to be a challenge. The Met
has put each of the scroll’s 11 panels – long since separated – into a
matte, in a sliver of air between thick slabs of plexiglass that
filters ultraviolet light. Nothing actually touches the papyrus, except
around its edges.

Now that it has been safely and expertly mounted, what will the
academy do with its treasure, after the Met’s exhibition is over?

"That’s an excellent question," said Maria Dering, an academy spokeswoman. "And we don’t have an answer yet."

About Jon Frater

A gaming industry stalwart dating back to the 1980s, Jonathan Frater is the co-author of roleplaying game books Robotech: Return of the Masters, and Robotech Adventures: Lancer's Rockers, both for Palladium Books. Jonathan also wrote a column on writing and game design called The Tome in Gateways magazine. He's currently a librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Article 9, the first in his ambitious Blockade Trilogy, is Jonathan's first full-length novel.

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