January 20, 1862 (a Monday)

In medical knowledge, Egypt leaves the rest of the world behind.

The Odyssey, Book 4 by Homer

Zen stones

The Edwin Smith Papyrus

On this date, in the city of Luxor, Egypt, the American Egyptologist Edwin Smith made an important historical discovery when he bought an ancient papyrus from a dealer named Mustapha Aga. After Smith died in 1906, his daughter, Leonora Smith, gave the papyrus to The New York Historical Society. In 1920, James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, was asked to translate the papyrus. Finally, in 1930, Dr. Breasted published the English translation for The New York Historical Society (University of Chicago Press). The papyrus now resides at The New York Academy of Medicine, where it has been since December 2, 1948.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the first known medical document dating from the 17th century B.C.E. However, it is thought to have been based on earlier documents, possibly by the 27th century B.C.E. medical writer and architect Imhotep, among others, since the papyrus appears to be a compilation of work based on the writing of multiple authors. This would make it the oldest of all known medical papyri. According to Breasted, the papyrus is a copy of an ancient composite manuscript which contained, in addition to the original author’s text, a commentary added a few hundred years later in the form of 69 explanatory notes (glosses). The treatise contains 48 systematically arranged case histories, beginning with injuries of the head and proceeding downward to the thorax and spine, where the document unfortunately breaks off. These cases are typical rather than individual, and each presentation of a case is divided into title, examination, diagnosis, and treatment. The treatment of these injuries is rational and chiefly surgical; there is resort to magic in only one case out of the 48 cases preserved. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is of special interest to the anatomist because it describes the sulci and gyri on the surface of the brain, the meninges (coverings of the brain), and the cerebrospinal fluid for the first time in recorded history.

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