Positive Progress Through The Benevolent Use Of Knowledge

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Medicine in Ancient Egypt pt2

Egyptian Papyri The medical papyri that have come to us, seven or more, are relatively late. They date from the Twelfth Dynasty to the Twentieth (2000 to 1090), but most of them reflect professedly earlier knowledge, going back to the Old Kingdom, as far back as the Fourth Dynasty. The two earliest papyri, the Kahun and the Gardiner fragments (c. 2000), deal with diseases of women, children, and cattle. The two Most important ones, the so-called Smith and Ebers papyri, date from the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries B.C.. The Smith one is of the same age as the Rhind mathematical papyrus. Roughly speaking, we may say that the outstanding, mathematical and medical treatises that have come to us are of the same period, the the Middle Kingdom and the beginning of the NewKingdom just prior the imperial age, when Egypt dominated the world.
Smith and Ebers Papyri Let us consider more carefully the two outstanding, the Smith and the Ebers, both of which are much larger than any others. On the basis of the figure given by Sarton, the seven medical papyri listed by him include 3746 lines, the Smith has 469 lines and the Ebers 2289, so that together they have 2758 lines, which is almost 74 percent of the total. As all the manuscripts are ultimately derived from similar Old Kingdom sources, we may safely assume that the study of the Ebers and the Smith papyri will give us a fair knowledge of ancient Egyptian medicine. We shall begin with the younger one, the Ebers papyrus, because it is by far the largest (almost five times as large as the Smith) and was the best known until very recent times. The difference in age is small anyhow, about a century, and negligible if one bears in mind that both texts represent older traditions. We are sure that the Ebers papyrus was written somewhat later than the Smith one, but it would be unwise to conclude that the contents of the former are of later date than the contents of the latter.
Ebers Papyrus The Ebers papyrus is a roll 20.23 m long and 30 cm high; the text is distributed in 108 columns of 20 to 22 lines each. It contains 877 recipes concerning a great variety of diseases or symptoms. Spells are recommended only in twelve cases and in other cases the therapeutics does not seem irrational, though we are seldom able to understand either the trouble or the remedy. The contents are arranged in the following order:
Recitals before medical treatment, to increase the virtue of the remedy.
Internal medical diseases. Diseases of the eye.
Diseases of the skin (with an appendix of sundries).
Diseases of the extremities. Miscellinea (especially diseases of the head, for example, of the tongue, teeth, nose, and ears, and cosmetics).
Diseases of women (and matters concerning housekeeping).
Information of an anatomic, physiologic, and pathologic nature, and explanation of words.
Surgical diseases. That order is open to many objections, but the author's intention is clear enough. He wanted to put together as well as possible all the information that a physician might need; he wrote a medical treatise, one of the earliest ever written (thirty-six centuries ago!).
Smith Papyru The Smith papyrus is much shorter. It is 33 cm high and was probably 5 m long, but the beginning has been lost and it now measures 4.70 m. lt is a copy of a much older text, dating back to the Pyramid Age, perhaps even early in that age, let us say the thirtieth century. After it had circulated for some generations it was found that its terms were antiquated.Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, say in the twenty-sixth century, a learned physician had the idea of rejuvenating it by the addition of glosses (69 in all), explaining obsolete terms and discussing dubious matters. (N.B. the Papyrus Ebers has also some glosses, 26 in all, but they have been badly messed up). These glosses constitute the most valuable part of the papyrus. The text as we have it now comprises two very distinct parts - 17 columns (377 lines) on the front and 4.5 columns (92 lines) on the back. The latter part contains only recipes and incantations and need not detain us. The main part is a surgical treatise, informed by a scientific spirit far superior to that of the Ebers papyrus. To be sure, the field of surgery is much less likely than that of internal medicine to be contaminated by irrational ideas, for in most surgical cases dealt with by ancient physicians the cause of the injury was too obvious to require the insertion of magical antecedents. On the contrary, an internal disease is always mysterious and likely to breed superstitious ideas in the patient's mind, even in the physician's mind. The Smith papyrus consists not of recipes but of definite cases. It was planned to deal with the ailments in the order of the bodily parts from head to foot, but unfortunately it stops a little below the shoulders, whether because the scribe was interrupted or because the end of the manuscript got 1ost. That order - eis podas ec cephales, a capite ad calces -remained the one throughout the Middle Ages, but it was so natural, as a first approximation, that we should not assume it was determined by the Egyptian example. The forty-eight cases dealt with in the papyrus, as it has come to us, are classified as follows:
The discussion begins with the head and skull, proceeding thence downward by way of the nose, face and ears, to the neck, clavicle, humerus, thorax, shoulders and spinal column, where the text is discontinued, leaving the document incomplete. Without any external indication of the arrangement of the text, the content of the treatise is nevertheless carefully disposed in groups of cases, each group being concerned with a certain region. These groups are as follows:

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