The ancient Egyptians left proof of their scientific prowess for people to marvel at for millennia. Their engineering skills can still be seen at Giza, their star charts in Luxor, their care for head wounds on Fifth Avenue.
Head wounds? Yes, and the ancients treated broken arms, cuts, even facial wrinkles – vanity is not a modern invention – and they used methods as advanced as rudimentary surgery and a sort of proto-antibiotics.
As for Fifth Avenue, it, like the Valley of the Kings, is a place of hidden treasures. What researchers call the world’s oldest known medical treatise, an Egyptian papyrus offering 4,000-year-old wisdom, has long dwelled in the rare books vault at the New York Academy of Medicine.
It is an extraordinary remnant of a culture that was already ancient when Rome was new and Athens was a backwater – Egypt’s stone monuments endure, but the scrolls made of pulped reeds have mostly been lost. One expert, James H. Breasted, who translated the papyrus in the 1920’s, called it “the oldest nucleus of really scientific knowledge in the world.” Yet relatively few people know of it, and fewer have seen it.
It is about to become much better known. After a short trip down Fifth (insert down-the-Nile metaphor here) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the papyrus will go on public display, probably for the first time, on Tuesday, as part of the Met’s exhibition “The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt.” The show will also include items like a CAT scan of a mummy, surgical needles and other medical artifacts.
“What they knew about the body is quite striking, though they did not always understand it,” said James Allen, curator of Egyptian art at the Met, whose new translation of the papyrus appears in the exhibition catalog.
The papyrus shows that ancient medics had a pretty good idea that blood, pumped by the heart, flows around the body – a notion that was not firmly established until the 17th century – and knew how to stitch cuts closed. It includes the oldest known descriptions of the effects of brain injuries, and the meninges, the membrane that covers the brain.
It also advises using honey – a natural bacteria killer – on open wounds, and giving patients a concoction of willow bark, which contains a natural painkiller that is chemically similar to aspirin. Mr. Allen said another ancient Egyptian text recommends putting moldy bread on wounds, suggesting that doctors had stumbled onto the principle behind penicillin. “They didn’t know what bacteria was, but they were already fighting infections,” Mr. Allen said. Though Egypt had metal tools, its doctors used stone knives, because “They could make flint knives much sharper, and a freshly sharpened flint knife is sterile.”
Preparing bodies for mummification gave the Egyptians detailed knowledge of anatomy and bandaging. They understood that a wound to one side of the head could cause paralysis on the opposite side of the body. The papyrus advises doctors to insert fingers into head wounds to feel what kinds of skull fractures and brain penetration are involved, and it differentiates between bones that are fractures, splintered or snapped in two.
Ever since an American, Edwin Smith, bought and translated the papyrus in the 19th century, it has struck readers as surprisingly modern. It includes magical incantations, but most of the text takes a methodical, empirical approach to diagnosis and treatment. Perhaps most striking is its restraint – the author’s approach is cautious, and in some cases, the text counsels doing nothing but waiting to see if the body will heal itself.
“When you think about some of the aggressive treatments recommended by later authorities, the things done in the Middle Ages that would make your skin crawl and were sometimes harmful, the papyrus is often much more in line with our current thinking,” said Miriam Mandelbaum, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the academy of medicine.
The papyrus dates to the 17th century B.C. – about nine centuries after the great pyramids were built, but about a century before the time Moses is believed to have lived. While there are fragments of medical writing that are somewhat older, experts say, none are nearly as extensive.
The papyrus uses words that were already archaic then, and the writer explains them, evidence that it is a copy of a document that was a few hundred years older. Writing with black and red ink, the ancient scribe used hieratic, a sort of cursive writing that is more abstract than the familiar picture-writing of hieroglyphics.
The author documented 48 medical cases, starting at the top of the head and working steadily down as far as the upper arm and chest. There, the papyrus stops mid-case, so experts assume that originally it continued to the feet.
It deals mostly with traumatic injuries like punctures and broken bones, so it may have been a manual for battle wounds, but one case addresses surgical removal of a growth – a cyst or tumor – on the chest. There is one lighter bit among all that gravity – someone added to the original text a recipe for an ointment to make the user look younger.
Smith, a native of Connecticut, was an amateur Egyptologist when the field was new, learned to read hieratic and hieroglyphics, and lived in Egypt for many years. In 1862, he bought a pair of papyrus medical scrolls from a dealer in Luxor; whether they had been looted from a tomb or library is unknown.
He kept the scroll that the Met will show, known as the Edwin Smith papyrus. He sold the other one, which is slightly newer, and today it belongs to a museum in Leipzig, Germany.
When Smith died, in 1906, his daughter gave his papyrus to the New-York Historical Society, which lent it for several years to the Brooklyn Museum, and then gave it in 1948 to the Academy of Medicine, at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.
Everyone recognized the importance of the scroll but no one knew quite what to do with it; the occasional scholar has taken a look, there is no record that the historical society or the Brooklyn Museum ever displayed it to the public, and the Academy of Medicine says it never has. The academy has long been a repository for rarities at the nexus of history and medicine, like George Washington’s ivory false teeth and a sample of Alexander Fleming’s original penicillin culture.
Displaying the papyrus safely turns out to be a challenge. The Met has put each of the scroll’s 11 panels – long since separated – into a matte, in a sliver of air between thick slabs of plexiglass that filters ultraviolet light. Nothing actually touches the papyrus, except around its edges.
Now that it has been safely and expertly mounted, what will the academy do with its treasure, after the Met’s exhibition is over?
“That’s an excellent question,” said Maria Dering, an academy spokeswoman. “And we don’t have an answer yet.”
New York Times