Medicine:Egyptian medical papyri

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Ancient medical instruments, Temple of Kom Ombo.

Egyptian medical papyri are ancient Egyptian texts written on papyrus which permit a glimpse at medical procedures and practices in ancient Egypt. These papyri give details on disease, diagnosis, and remedies of disease, which include herbal remedies, surgery, and magical incantations. Many of these papyri have been lost due to grave robbery. 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").[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]

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.[3][4] Heinrich was the first to study this papyrus, and a translation did not become available until 1909, published by Walter Wreszinski.[5] In 1875, the Ebers Papyrus, covering a broad concept of general pathology was published. Some 20 years later, the Kahun Papyri were published by F.L. Griffith in 1898, and this was the first published papyri about the practice of gynecology.[3] 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.[6] 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.[6] In 1905, the Hearst Papyrus was published by G.A. Reisner.[3][4] 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[3], and the following two publications in 1912 and 1913. These were primarily translations with some commentary overviewing the Egyptian medical processes.[3] 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.[7] 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.[4]

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.[8] Spells were the earliest forms of medical treatments and believed to be effective before other methods were revealed.[8] 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.[8] 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.

Main medical papyri

Kahun Papyrus

Main page: Medicine:Kahun Gynaecological 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,[9] 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. Kahun papyri is efficiently divided into three different sections.[10] 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.[10]

Ramesseum Papyri

Main page: Medicine:Ramesseum medical 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.[11] They concentrate on the eyes, gynecology, paediatrics, muscles and tendons.[1][12]

Edwin Smith Papyrus

Plates vi & vii of the Edwin Smith Papyrus (around the 17th century BC), among the earliest medical texts

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 Edwin Smith papyri is of a great deal of importance because it changed medical practices, people were now learning that they could do surgery, whereas before they relied on more religious healing practices. The papyrus takes its name from the Egyptian archaeologist Edwin Smith, who purchased it in the 1860s.[13] 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,[14] it is thought to be based on material from a thousand years earlier.[15] 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

Main page: Chemistry: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.[citation needed] One of the most important findings of this papyrus are the references to migraines which shows the condition dates back to this time.[16]

Hearst Papyrus

The Hearst Papyrus was offered in 1901 to the Hearst Expedition in Egypt. It is dated around the 18th dynasty some time during the reign of Thutmose III,[17] 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][18] Some of the context in the Hearst Papyrus has also been similarly found in the Ebers Papyrus and repeated in the Berlin Papyrus.[19]

London Papyrus

Londonpapyrus EA 10059

The London Medical Papyrus 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] The focus of the London Medical Papyrus is holistically spiritual and relies heavily on spells that deal with the supernatural.[19] Instructions are given on driving out demons and raising people from the dead.[19] All of the ideas expressed in the London Papyrus are meant to cure people of their ailments using supernatural methods.

Berlin Papyrus

The Greater Berlin Papyrus, also known as the Brugsch Papyrus (Pap. Berl. 3038) was 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 VIII is the property of the Carlsberg Foundation. The papyrus covers diseases of the eye and pregnancy.[1] While similar to the Kahun and Berlin Papyrus, the Carlsburg papyrus goes into much more detail on pregnancy, covering methods such as determining whether or not a woman will give birth through the use of hippopotamus excrement.[20] The Carlsberg Papyrus sheds light on how women will conceive and whether or not they will conceive, using garlic. This garlic is used as an indicator once properly placed in the body of a woman.

Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus

The Chester Beatty Medical 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][21]

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 Papyrus Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus dates 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 BCE Hieratic The oldest known surgical treatise on trauma The 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 trauma Attributed by some to Imhotep Luxor, Egypt before 1862 New York Academy of Medicine a 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
Edwin Smith Papyrus v2.jpg
Ebers Papyrus Papyrus Ebers c. 1550 BC but believed to be a copy from earlier texts of 3400 BC Hieratic Medicine, Obstetrics & gynecology & surgery The 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 burns N/A Assassif district of the Theban necropolis before 1862 Library of University of Leipzig, Germany a 110-page scroll, which is about 20 meters long
PEbers c41-bc.jpg
Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus Kahun Papyrus, Kahun Medical Papyrus, or UC 32057 ca. 1800 BCE Hieratic Medicine, Obstetrics & gynecology, pediatrics and veterinary medicine The 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 prescriptions N/A El-Lahun by Flinders Petrie in 1889 Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology 2 gynecologic papyri &1 veterinary payrus
PKahun LV2.jpg
Ramesseum medical papyri Ramesseum medical papyri parts III, IV, and V 18th century BC Hieroglyphic & hieratic Medicine, gynecology, ophthalmology, rheumatology & pediatrics A 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 children N/A Ramesseum temple Ashmolean Museum 3 papyri (parts III, IV, V)
Hearst papyrus Hearst Medical Papyrus 18th Dynasty of Egypt, around time of Tuthmosis III ca. 0000 but believed to have been composed earlier, during the Middle Kingdom, around 2000 BC Hieratic Urology, Medicine and bites 260 paragraphs on 18 columns in 18 pages of medical prescriptions for problems of urinary system, blood, hair, and bites N/A discovered by an Egyptian peasant of village of Deir el-Ballas before 1901 Bancroft Library, University of California 18 pages
Papyrus Hearst Plate 2.jpg
London Medical Papyrus BM EA 10059 19th dynasty 1300 BC or ca. 1629–1628 BC Hieratic skin complaints, eye complaints, bleeding, miscarriage and burns 61 recipes, of which 25 are classified as medical the remainder are of magic N/A N/A British Museum
London Medical Papyrus 15.jpg
Brugsch Papyrus Pap. Berl. 3038, the Greater Berlin Papyrus 19th dynasty, and dated ca. 1350 - 1200 BC Hieratic ? Medical discussing general medical cases and bears a great similarity to the Ebers papyrus. Some historians believe that this papyrus was used by Galen in his writings Discovered by an Egyptian in Saqqara before 1827 Berlin Museum 24 pages (21 to the front and 3 on the back)
Carlsberg papyrus Carlsberg Papyrus VIII between 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.D Hieratic, Demotic. Hieroglyphs and in Greek Obstetrics & gynecology, Medicine, Pediatrics & ophthalmology The structure of the papyrus verso bears great resemblance to that of the Kahun and Berlin papyri. The recto is very damaged and nearly identical to the Ebers Papyrus. N/A N/A Egyptological Institute of the University of Copenhagen
Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus Chester 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] Hieratic Headache, and Anorectal disorders Magic spells and medical recipes for headache & anorectal disease started 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 tomb Deir el-Medina (the workers village) in 1928 British Museum
Brooklyn Papyrus 47.218.48 och 47.218.85, also known as the Brooklyn Medical Papyrus a 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 Egypt Hieratic deals only with snakes and scorpion bites, and the formula to drive out the poison of such animals It speaks about remedies to drive out poison from snakes, scorpions and tarantulas. The style of these remedies relates to that of the Ebers papyrus might originate from a temple at ancient Heliopolis, discovered before 1885 Brooklyn Museum in New York a 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)
Erman Papyrus[22] given with the Westcar papyrus to Berlin museum Middle dated from the beginning of the New Kingdom (16th century BC) Medicine, Magic & Anatomy holds some medical formula and a list of anatomic names (body and viscera) and about 20 magical formula N/A before 1886 AD Berlin Museum
Leiden Papyrus[22] Rijksmuseum, Leiden I 343 - I 345 18th-19th dynasty Medicine, Magic It mostly deals with magical texts N/A N/A Rijks museum, Leiden
Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2547 Oxyrhynchus 2547 3rd-century Hippocratic Oath Papyru Fragment of Hippocratic Oath N/A N/A N/A NlA
Papyrus text; fragment of Hippocratic oath. Wellcome L0034090.jpg

See also


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Marry, Austin (January 21, 2004). "Ancient Egyptian Medical Papyri". Eircom Limited. 
  2. "medicine, health and wellbeing". 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Jouanna, Jacques; Allies, Neil (2012), van der Eijk, Philip, ed., "EGYPTIAN MEDICINE AND GREEK MEDICINE", Greek Medicine from Hippocrates to Galen, Selected Papers (Brill): pp. 3–20,, retrieved 2021-04-06 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Sanchez, Gonzalo (2012). The Edwin Smith Papyrus. Lockwood Press. ISBN 9781937040017. 
  5. "LC Catalog - No Connections Available". 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Leach, Bridget (2006). "A Conservation History of the Ramesseum Papyri". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 92: 225–240. doi:10.1177/030751330609200110. ISSN 0307-5133. 
  7. Dawson, Warren R. (1932). "Studies in the Egyptian Medical Texts". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 18 (3/4): 150–154. doi:10.2307/3854976. ISSN 0307-5133. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Ritner, Robert (April 2000). "Innovations and Adaptations in Ancient Egyptian Medicine". Journal of Near Eastern Studies 59 (2): 107–117. doi:10.1086/468799. PMID 16468204. 
  9. Worton, Michael; Wilson-Tagoe, Nana (2004). National Healths: Gender, Sexuality and Health in a Cross-Cultural Context. London: University College London Press/Cavendish Publishing. p. 192. ISBN 978-1-84472-017-0. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Smith, Lesley (Jan 2011). "The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus: ancient Egyptian medicine". Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care 37 (1): 54–55. doi:10.1136/jfprhc.2010.0019. PMID 21367707. 
  11. Leach, Bridget (December 1, 2006). "A Conservation History of the Ramesseum Papyri". The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 92 (1): 225–240. doi:10.1177/030751330609200110. ISSN 0307-5133. 
  12. "History of the Library: late Middle Kingdom manuscripts from a tomb under the Ramesseum". University College London. 2003. 
  13. DiPaolo, Anthony C. (November 12, 2009). "The Papyrus Page". Osiris Designs. 
  14. 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.
  15. 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. PMID 14127631.  translation of 13 cases from Breasted, James Henry (1930) pertaining to injuries of the skull and spinal cord, with commentary.
  16. "A Brief History of Migraines". 
  18. "The Hearst Medical Papyrus". Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 2003. 
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Mark, Joshua (February 2017). "Ancient Egyptian Medical Texts". 
  20. Iversen, Erik. "PAPYRUS CARLSBERG NO. VIII". p. 23.,%20Erik.pdf. 
  21. Owen, Antoinette; Danzing, Rachel (1993). "The History and Treatment of the Papyrus Collection at The Brooklyn Museum". in Espinosa, Robert. American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 Sadek, Ashraf Alexandre (January 2001). "Some Aspects of Medicine in Pharonic Egypt". Australian Academy of Medicine & Surgery. 

Further reading

  • Leake, Chauncey D. (1952). The Old Egyptian Medical Papyri. Logan Clendening Lectures on the History and Philosophy of Medicine, Second Series. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press.