Medical Papyrus: The Guide for Ancient Egyptian Physicians

From the lecture series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph. D., Long Island University

Ancient Egyptians were not very fond of writing. Fortunately, one thing that they did write was medical papyrus. These were written instructions for the physicians, and there were quite a few of them. These were of two different types: One was clinical, which we call medical papyrus, and the other one was magical.

The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus.
The Edwin Smith papyrus is the world’s oldest surviving surgical document. (Image: Jeff Dahl/Public domain)

One of the best medical papyrus is the Edwin Smith surgical papyrus. It talks about trauma. From the top of the body, to the bottom, this document has treatment for 48 cases of physical trauma. It provides the description of the case, and then tells what should be done.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus

The medical papyrus is dated from around 1700 BC, but many people think it came much earlier than that. Most likely, from the pyramid age because of the type of injuries or illnesses that have been described in it.

It describes broken bones and related ailments, and these types of injuries happen when you handle large pieces of stones. That’s why many people think that the medical papyrus dates back to the pyramid age.

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Medical Papyrus: Instructions for Surgeons

What is really interesting is what the papyrus tells the physicians to do. So, when someone has an injury, it first gives the description of the injury.

Let’s say someone gets an injury to his frontal bone, which is basically his forehead. It has crashed in and it is crushed and a part of the brain is exposed. The papyrus will describe that. Next, it will tell the physician what he should tell the family of the injured. If the man is not conscious, then there are three ways in which the surgeon can break the news to the family.

First, he can say that it is an illness that he will treat. This is quite optimistic and means that the physician will treat it and it will get better. The second option for the physician to say is that this is an illness that he will deal with. Now, this practically means that he will do what he can, but cannot assure that the patient will survive or not. And the third possibility that the physician can use to say is that this is an illness and he will not treat it.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

When Should a Physician Refuse to Help?

The medical papyrus identifies an ailment and gives a solution to the physician.

But, as mentioned earlier, there are situations when the medical papyrus instructs the physicians to not attend to some injuries. Why? Most probably, the answer is that the medical papyrus is also concerned about the reputation of the physicians. So if they treat a lot of patients who ultimately die, it would reflect badly on their reputation. They won’t get any benefit from treating a patient who is going to die.

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Medical Papyrus and the Brain

The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus says a lot aabout the brain. It describes it. But, it does not really tell you that they knew the function of the brain.

Of course, what it says is when you get an injury to the head, sometimes the arm is immobilized, which of course happens when you get brain trauma. But that doesn’t mean they understood the function of the brain, because in mummification that’s the one organ they threw away. They didn’t keep the brain. They believed you thought with your heart.

And, as a matter of fact, there’s even a mistake in the papyrus about what happens when you get a trauma injury to the brain. It says, if you’re injured on the right side of the brain sometimes the right arm is immobilized. It happens the other way usually.

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Magic Plays a Part, Too

So the papyrus has many practical things to tell: how to splint arms, bandage them, put a poultice on them. Yet, the one curious thing is with all these clinical cases, there’s one that’s magical.

It’s about a frontal injury to the forehead. What do you do then? You take an ostrich eggshell and grind it up with some fat and other ingredients and put it on the forehead. The idea is that an ostrich eggshell is round, kind of like a skull, like what you want it to be. You want your skull to be round and nice and whole and complete. It’s a magical cure.

Flip Side to the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus

The Egyptians didn’t have germ theory, they didn’t know about germs or bacteria. They had no idea what caused a fever. So, when they didn’t know the cause, for something like a fever, then they resorted to magic.

Now the Egyptians apparently suffered a plague every year. They said it ‘came on the winds’. And, they give various treatments for it. An interesting one was to burn the bed linens. It’s almost like they knew that it was contaminated.

The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus had many such solutions. They tried lots of things. There were spells and many ingredients were used in them. This is probably also the origin of pharmacology.

Other Medical Papyrus

The London papyrus.
The London Leiden magical papyrus had many solutions. (Image: Walter Wreszinski/Public domain)

The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of medical papyri. For example, the Papyrus Ebers Smith—papyri are usually named after people who owned them, and Ebers was the one who found it— describes 800 medical treatments. It had solutions for headaches and even blindness.

If you had a lame foot, the London Leiden magical papyrus tells you to wrap it with a deerskin. The idea is that a deer is fleet of foot, runs quick and maybe by sympathetic magic, the fleetness of the deer will come into your foot.

So there were two approaches to illnesses in ancient Egypt: one clinical, the more practical one that helped cure trauma injuries, the injuries about whom the causes were known. But in instances where the cause was unknown, like a fever or a colicky child, magic and spells always came to the rescue.

Common Questions about Medical Papyrus of Ancient Egypt

Q: What is the Edwin Smith Papyrus?

The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a medical papyrus which talks about trauma. From top of the body, to the bottom, this document has treatment for 48 cases of physical trauma.

Q: What are the three ways in which a physician can talk to a patient’s family?

According to the Edwin Smith medical papyrus, first, a physician can say that it is an illness that he will treat. The second option is to say that this is an illness that he will deal with. And the third possibility that the physician can use to say is that this is an illness and he will not treat it.

Q: Did ancient Egyptians use spells or magic to cure illnesses?

Yes. Some medical papyrus talk about using spells or magic to cure ailments where the cause is unknown such as fever, headache or even blindness.

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