December 2018 Edition. Volume XVIII

Egypt200GIF EdwinSmith200GIF

Edwin Smith, was an Egyptologist who was born in Connecticut, United States in 1822. In Luxor, Egypt in 1862 he purchased the medical manuscripts which have since born his name.  It wasn’t until 1930 that the hieroglyphics were finally translated by James Breasted, Director of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute. The papyri contain medical text originating from the period 3,000-2,500 B.C. and additional material added centuries later.

The Edwin Smith papyri represented the ancient Egyptian “Merck Manual” for the management of injury.  Despite the fact that most of the papyri which have come to light have been more mystical than medical these writings represented the “hard core” medical information of their time.  It is believed that the original papyrus was written by a unknown surgeon, with another unknown physician adding commentary and clarification years later.  The existing text is believed to have been something which was recopied by a scribe in about 1,700 B.C.  The Edwin Smith documents are remarkable in many ways including their lucidity regarding real medical situations which are presented as 48 systematically arranged case histories beginning with head injuries and then proceeding down the spine.  Each case presentation is divided into title, examination, diagnosis and treatment.

The Edwin Smith papyri also document the first application of the principle of “triage” in that, in each case, a definitive treatment decision was made using well-stated criteria and followed by the determination:

An ailment not to be treated”
“An ailment which I will treat”

For those individuals whose ailments allowed treatment spinal traction was one of the therapies employed.  Along with skull trephination performed by pre-historic man spinal traction was clearly one of the most venerated treatment modalities in medical history still having, due to advanced technology, a continuing prominent role in present medical practice.

Wilkins RH: Neurosurgical Classics, Johnson Reprint
Corporation: New York and London, 1965.
Bonnabeau RC: The Edwin Smith Papyrus from Ancient Egypt.  The
World’s First Surgical Treatise.  Minn. Med. 68(4): 277, 279-280,
1985 (April).


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