Case 32: “The inside of the back of his neck is like a foot sinking into cultivated soil; it is a compressing / collapsing downwards”.

#4. The Art of Medical Recording in Papyrus in early Egypt

Papyri, the grass like plants from the Nile Delta were used extensively by the Egyptians for recording the wonderful civilization of their early times. Unfortunately, only a few of them record Medical history extensively.

The most famous papyri are the Smith Papyrus; the Ebers Papyrus and the conveniently named Kahun Gynecological Papyrus. These are all named after the people who purchased them at some recent time and shared the content with a larger audience.

Other papyri of medical importance are the Hearst, Brugsch and the London medical papyri.

In 1862 Edwin Smith, an American Egyptologist purchased what we today know as the Smith Papyrus. Estimated to be written some 3600 years ago, this papyrus is mostly incomplete with interrupted information. The value of the Smith papyrus however is in its construct. The rational approach in its 48 case studies. Except for one hymn dedicated as a prayer to the Gods for divine blessings, the writings mainly deal with wounds, injuries and trauma management methodically approaching from the head to lower extremities. The value of these papers lies in how in times when divine curse and blessings ruled the human mind and the world, these case studies stated what we practice today as modern medicine – the art of diagnosis to cure. In his lifetime Smith was not able to decipher the papyrus. After his death, his daughter donated the papyrus to the Ney York Historical Society where an Egyptologist, Dr Henry Breasted translated these into English.

The Smith papyrus also is the first human documentation of application of stitches to close wound, using raw meat to stem bleeding and the application of honey (an antiseptic) to prevent infection.

In 1872, Georg Ebers bought what is today called the Ebers Papyri. Ebers was a novel writer specializing in introducing the rich and romantic history of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt through his novels. He was a professor of History at the University of Leipzig in Germany and today the Ebers papyri are preserved in the University’s museum. The Ebers papyrus is in deep contrast to the Smith papyrus. For it focuses on the “spirit” of the times recording and prescribing chants, hymns and prayers to ward off the evil and usher in the blessings of the Almighty for ailment. Bladder, bowel and other ailments are described in meticulous details, but the remedy is directed at divine intervention in the Ebers papyri.

A more interesting document is the Kahun Gynecological papyrus. Now in the records of the University College, London, it is one of the earliest documents in medical history dating back to around 3800 years. As the name suggests, it concerns primarily the female reproductive system. Describing the ailments and prescribing remedies and advising precautions. For example, for menstrual pain it describes thus “Treatment for a woman who loves bed, she does not rise, she does not shake off…her griping or spasm of the womb…let her drink two henu of khaui and let her spit it out immediately.”

And a recipe for contraceptive is “a preparation made of honey, sour milk and dung of a crocodile to be inserted into the vagina.”

Unfortunately, but perhaps conveniently, the Kahun papyrus records nothing of its treatment failures and successes.

Whereas, the scientifically written Smith papyrus boldly records the 14 failures as “Outcome Unfavorable” of the entire 48 case records it documents. These are cases where “a case which the surgeon can not cure and which he is led to discuss by his scientific interest alone”.

Reference: A Short History of Medicine by Steve Parker; European Spine Journal https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989268/

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