Ancient Egyptians have long been known for their expertise in preserving the dead. But a 4,000-year-old papyrus scroll on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York indicates that they were also remarkably advanced when it came to preserving life.
Preparing bodies for mummification gave the Egyptians detailed knowledge not only of anatomy but of bandaging and other medical practices as well. They treated head wounds, broken bones, and even facial wrinkles. Their methods included basic surgery, using stitches to close wounds, and applying honey, a natural antiseptic, to cuts.
The papyrus, which is owned by the New York Academy of Medicine, is the world's oldest known medical treatise. It dates to 1600 B.C., about 900 years after Egypt's great pyramids were constructed. Ever since Edwin Smith, an American Egyptologist, bought and translated the scroll in 1862, its text has struck readers as surprisingly modern.
ASPIRIN & PENICILLIN
"What they knew about the body is quite striking, though they did not always understand it." says James Allen, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum.
Although the scroll includes magical incantations, most of the text is practical and methodical in its recommendations. The author's approach is cautious; in some cases, the text counsels waiting to see if the body will heal itself.
The papyrus indicates that Egyptian medics had some idea that blood, pumped by the heart, flows through the body--a notion that was not firmly established until the 17th century. It also advises giving patients a concoction with willow bark, which contains a natural painkiller that is chemically similar to aspirin.
According to Allen, some ancient Egyptian doctors recommended putting moldy bread on wounds, which suggests that they had stumbled onto the principle behind penicillin--an antibiotic derived from a type of mold.
"They didn't know what bacteria was, but they were already fighting infections," Allen says.
The papyrus documents 48 cases, mostly injuries like punctures and broken bones, and may have been a manual for treating battle injuries.
"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," says Miriam Mandelbaum of the New York Academy of Medicine, "the papyrus is much more in line with our current thinking."
Richard Perez-Pena is a reporter for The Times.