Sometimes we do things that we just feel like doing without knowing the significance of what we are doing. Edwin Smith was in a similar situation. He was an Egyptologist and he happened upon a papyrus scroll which he thought would be relevant to what he was doing. Looking at it, he couldn’t really decipher what it meant. He held onto it until his death in 1906, at which point, his daughter donated it to the New York Historical Society. Only then did they realize what the papyrus was.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a medical document—the world’s oldest surviving text book on surgery. It was created in around 1600 BCE, but careful examination of the writing reveals that the document is only a copy of an even older medical treatise believed to have been written around 3000-2500 BCE. The scribe who copied the Edwin Smith Papyrus from the earlier document in the 17th century BC made many errors, some of which he corrected in the margins. Eventually, he pushed aside the document and left it incomplete, for reason which we may never know.
Even uncompleted, the Edwin Smith Papyrus was an important document because it showed for the first time that ancient Egyptians had a far greater knowledge of the human anatomy and medicine than previously thought of. Notably, it showed that the Egyptians’ understanding of traumatic injuries—which the Edwin Smith Papyrus deals with extensively—was based on observable anatomy rather than relying on magic or potion.
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)