Papyrus Edwin Smith


knowledge domains
Alternative Names
Book of Wounds Surgical Papyrus
Present location
North America » USA. » (Cities L-P) » New York City (NY) » Academy of Medicine

Inventory number: 217

Acquisition history

After the death of the first owner, Edwin Smith, in 1906, his daughter, Miss Leonora Smith, donated the papyrus to the New York Historical Society. From 1938 to 1948, the papyrus was housed in the Brooklyn Museum in New York before being given to the New York Academy of Medicine in 1948. There it is housed in the Malloch Rare Book Room bearing the inventory number 217 (Breasted 1930 I, 20–25; Allen 2005, 70; Sanchez – Meltzer 2012, 1–2). Information on the first owner E. Smith can be found in Wilson 1964, 52–57, 230, Kilgour 1993, 292–297 (see particularly 292–293), Bierbrier 2012, 515 and Sanchez – Meltzer 2012, 16–18.

Find spot
Asyut to First Cataract » Thebes

The papyrus was acquired on January 20, 1862 by the American Edwin Smith (1822–1906), then a resident of Luxor, money lender, antiquities dealer and forger, and amateur Egyptologist, in the town of Luxor from Mustapha Agha Ayat (fl. 1850–1887), antiquities dealer and vice-consul of Great Britain, Belgium, and Russia. On March 17, 1862, he acquired another papyrus from the same Mustapha Agha. However, this second papyrus was a modern forgery, composed of fragments of three different ancient papyri, including the fragments of the first preserved column of the Edwin Smith papyrus (Breasted 1930 I, 21–22, 75–76).

The original site of discovery is unknown, but it is likely to have been a tomb in the Theban necropolis, for only in such a context could a papyrus of the 17th or early 18th Dynasty have come down to us so undamaged. In case it should have come from a tomb and been found together with the papyrus Ebers, the circumstances of the finding of the papyrus Ebers are equally relevant for the Papyrus Edwin Smith. Both texts were in the possession or care of E. Smith in Luxor at the latest on November 14, 1864 (see a letter from E. Smith to C. Goodwin: Dawson 1934, 110–121). In the case of the Ebers papyrus, the place of discovery is also unknown, but according to G. Ebers, the Egyptian seller informed him that his papyrus had been found in a tomb in the Assasif, in a coffin between the legs of a mummy (Breasted 1930 I, 25).

Era and Dynasty Dates » Pharaonic Period » 2nd Intermediate Period » 17th Dynasty, Era and Dynasty Dates » Pharaonic Period » New Kingdom » 18th Dynasty

The dating to the later Second Intermediate Period or to the early New Kingdom, i.e. to the 17th or the beginning of the 18th Dynasty, perhaps to the middle of the 16th century BC (?), is based on the paleography, the orthography and the presumed circumstances of the find. Paleographically, the Edwin Smith papyrus resembles the Ebers papyrus (containing a calendar from year 9 of Amenhotep I) and the Westcar papyrus (no exact dating), as well as the Rhind mathematical papyrus (year 33 of the Hyksos king Apophis) (Breasted 1930 I, 28–29, with comparison table at 26–27). J. H. Breasted does not take the verso texts, written in a second hand, into consideration and assumes that they were written down somewhat later. Some hieratic characters on the recto show an older form than the one used in the Papyrus Ebers, which is why J. H. Breasted assumes that the Papyrus Edwin Smith was copied at least one generation earlier than the Papyrus Ebers, i.e. shortly before the beginning of the New Kingdom. For him, the Papyrus Edwin Smith dates to the Hyksos period, which he equates with the 17th century BC (Breasted 1930 I, 28–29). A subsequent examination of the orthography of the words of Papyrus Edwin Smith by J. H. Breasted shows word forms partly younger and partly older than the Papyrus Ebers. J. H. Breasted, with due caution, tends to regard this result as a confirmation of an earlier dating than Papyrus Ebers (Breasted 1930 I, 593–595). Today, the Hyksos period is no longer exactly equated with the 17th century. It is contemporary with the southern Egyptian 16th and 17th dynasties, which J. P. Allen cites as the time of copying and which he situates in the period 1650-1550 BC (Allen 2005, 70). Sanchez and Meltzer follow J. H. Breasted and J. P. Allen in dating Papyrus Edwin Smith to the Hyksos period and Theban 17th dynasty, possibly slightly earlier than Papyrus Ebers (Sanchez – Meltzer 2012, 12, 14). H. Grapow (Grapow 1955, 88-89) and W. Westendorf (Westendorf 1999, 16) give as date the beginning of the New Kingdom or more precisely around 1550 BC. This precise date is based on the dating of the papyrus Ebers, in which a calendar from the 9th year of Amenhotep I was subsequently (!) written on the back. H. Grapow and W. Westendorf also assume that Papyrus Edwin Smith and Papyrus Ebers were found together (Westendorf 1999, 22), so that not only the paleographic similarities, but also the presumed circumstances of the find would speak for a contemporaneous dating. H. Grapow considers it in this respect irrelevant that J. H. Breasted would like to date the Edwin Smith papyrus about one generation earlier than the Ebers papyrus (Grapow 1955, 89).

The original text of the so-called “Book on trauma”, also called the “surgical treatise” or “surgical manual” is significantly older than the preserved copy. In terms of grammar and vocabulary, the “Book on trauma” is a mixed text and can be divided into several editorial stages in terms of structure. The following editorial stages are conceivable: (1) writing of the original “surgical treatise”; (2) expansion (in one or more stages) of the manual to include differential diagnoses, alternative treatments, and a magical spell; (3) addition of headings to the individual cases; (4) one or more glossing stages involving at least two other healing treatises.

Both the main medical text and the glosses show traces of an older linguistic stage than the Hyksos period (list of Old Egyptian features in Breasted 1930 I, 73–75 and see Westendorf 1962, 328 with note 2). For J. H. Breasted both text stages originate from the Old Kingdom, which he places between 3000 and 2500 BC (we now know that the Old Kingdom is somewhat later). For Breasted, the glosses too are earlier than the Middle Kingdom, which presupposes a dating of the main text in “the early part of the Old Kingdom” (Breasted 1930 I, 73–75). J. H. Breasted speculates that Imhotep, an architect and later deified as a physician, could have been a potential author of the text, but this is highly unlikely.

More recent studies are inconclusive as far as the date of the original treatise and its reworking is concerned. W. Westendorf also assumes that the text originated in the Old Kingdom (Westendorf 1966, 10; also Pommerening 2014, 38–40). E. S. Meltzer puts a time for the original document between the end of the Old Kingdom and the early Middle Kingdom, or “very roughly ca. 2200–2000 BC” (Sanchez – Meltzer 2012, 12). Deviating from these early dates, J. P. Allen writes that both the language of the text and the errors made by the copyist point to an original that would be about 200 to 300 years older than the time of the copy, which he places once at c. 1650–1550 and once c. 1600 BC (Allen 2005, 70). As for the glossing phase, H.-W. Fischer-Elfert notes that the two jry.w text collections which are mentioned in three glosses “should be related from a literary history viewpoint to the practice of glossing religious texts, first evident in the late 13th Dynasty glossings of the Book of the Dead” (Fischer-Elfert 2013, 26).

Text type
Medical compendium / compilation

The Edwin Smith papyrus contains on the recto a uniform, coherent text on the subject of wounds and injuries, providing their identification, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. On the verso, texts of different types are gathered, which are independent of the topic of wounds and injuries.

The text on the front side of the papyrus scroll is a treatise on wounds and injuries and is paraphrased with the modern terms "Book of Wounds" and "Surgical Papyrus". The ancient title has not been preserved. In individual sections, which are divided into identically conceived subsections (title, examination, diagnosis and prognosis, treatment, explanations in glossings), a total of 49 cases of trauma are listed concerning wounds, fractures, dislocations, strains, ulcers, and swellings/tumors. The 49th diagnosis is incomplete because the copyist stopped copying in the middle of the sentence, although the papyrus roll was not yet full. The individual cases start with head injuries and should have ended with foot injuries, but the copyist stopped writing at the spine. Within each body part, the order is predominantly from minor injury to hopeless case. Optional gloss-like comments have been appended to the respective end of a case, 69 different ones in all. Usually such a gloss occurs only at the first instance of the text, sometimes it is repeated in a later case. Conspicuously, the text is almost completely free of magical spells, because the cause of the ailment by external force is clearly identifiable, while magical spells are used mainly when the cause is unknown.

The same copyist who copied the so-called “Book of Wounds” on the front of the scroll, first copied eight magical formulas (spells) against the “plagues of the year” on the back (col. 18–20.12; these are a group of problems with vermin and infectious diseases that occurred regularly, e.g. at the time of the Nile flood). Starting a new paragraph he continued with a prescription for a menstrual disorder and with two prescriptions for skin care (col. 20.13–21.8). Another copyist continued, again starting a new paragraph, with an ointment prescription for a rejuvenation cure (i.e., also a skin care remedy) (col. 21.9–22.10). After another paragraph, the second copyist finished his work with a prescription for an anal complaint (col. 22.11–14). An area about 12 columns long has been left blank on the verso.

Original use

For whom this medical text was originally written and what purpose it was intended to serve is unclear. Was it a manual for medical training, a reference work in a temple library, or even a practical manual for a physician in the field? Even with regard to the context of use of the specific text copy we call Papyrus Edwin Smith, only conjecture can be made. J. H. Breasted considers it possible that the first owner of the “Book of Wounds” was not so much interested in this particular text, as he might have instructed the copyist to stop his copying work and instead enter the incantations against epidemics on the back. Breasted calls the last owner a “village quack” who took the papyrus, already damaged by frequent handling, to the grave (Breasted 1930 I, 19–20). Another original context of use or storage might have been a temple library (this alternative possibility is found in Allen 2005, 70). But it is highly unlikely that a single papyrus, let alone a temple library, of the early 18th Dynasty could have survived the millennia undamaged anywhere other than in a tomb.

Organic » Fiber (from plants and animals) » Papyrus
Object type
Artefact » Writing surfaces » Scroll
Technical description

The papyrus scroll measures 4.68 m in length and is between 32.5–33 cm high (high format papyrus of that time). It consists of 12 sheets glued together (each 40 cm wide) with 11 excellently produced joints. The first preserved sheet on the right edge of the scroll is partially destroyed. It contained the beginning of the “Book of Wounds”, of which probably (only) one text column is completely lost. The text of the “Book of Wounds” today consists of 17 text columns. On the verso there are five more columns with other texts. Each column is 28–29 cm high and 18–27 cm wide (the first columns are generally wider than the later ones). Each column contains between 18 and 26 lines of text. The last 39 cm of the recto and the first 39 cm of the verso, respectively, are uninscribed (Breasted 1930, 25, 28). After its discovery, the papyrus was cut into eight pieces for conservation reasons (Allen 2005, 70).


The direction of writing and reading of the text on both sides of the papyrus runs from right to left. The recto and the first 3.5 text columns of the verso are written by the same hand. The rest of the text from the middle of the third column on was written by a different scribal hand in a clearly different handwriting. J. H. Breasted suggests that this second hand may be somewhat later in date (Breasted 1930 I, 28).

The handwriting of the first scribe is precise and of high quality, however, the clarity of the handwriting diminishes from time to time, the distance between the lines is somewhat irregular and errors are present in places. One might suspect a certain lack of concentration or fatigue on the part of the scribe, who was probably a professional scribe and not a physician. In many cases, the scribe himself noticed his errors and corrected them above or within the line. In one instance he forgot a few words, which he added with a reference cross above the column.

The scribe used black and red ink. The red ink came into play either at the beginning of a new paragraph or entire paragraphs were written alternately in black and red ink. Again, the scribe was inconsistent from time to time. In the recipes on the verso, the quantities of the drug ingredients to be used are written in red ink.

Egyptian-Coptic » Egyptian » Middle Egyptian
Research history

In 1930, after 10 years of philological work, J. H. Breasted delivered a masterly edition of the complete Edwin Smith papyrus (recto and verso), including a photographic reproduction, hieroglyphic transcription of the hieratic, a translation, and a comprehensive textual commentary. This edition remains the starting point of research to this very day. A year later, in 1931, M. Meyerhof made the contents of the “Book of Wounds” known to the German-speaking community, either translating J. H. Breasted's translation of the cases into German or paraphrasing them and providing a brief medical commentary. B. Ebbell based his 1939 German translation of the “Book of Wounds” largely on J. H. Breasted's work and added his own medical commentary. An independent new edition and translation into German was published as part of the project "Grundriß der Medizin der alten Ägypter" (volumes IV and V), with a translation and a thematically organized hieroglyphic transcription. The text was completely entered and analysed in the associated project dictionaries and grammar (DrogWb; MedWb; Westendorf 1962, 328 with note 2). In 1966, W. Westendorf produced another translation, which he updated in 1999. In 2005, as part of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, J. P. Allen provided a complete color reproduction and a new English translation of the entire text in the accompanying catalog. The most recent treatment of the “Book of Wounds” was published in 2012 by G. M. Sanchez and E. S. Meltzer, with a complete set of color photographs, a hieroglyphic transcription, an English translation, and philological as well as medical commentary.


- Allen 2005: J. P. Allen, The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt (New York/New Haven/London 2005), 70–115.

- Breasted 1930 I: J. H. Breasted, The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. Published in Facsimile and Hieroglyphic Transliteration with Translation and Commentary in two Volumes. I. Hieroglyphic Transliteration, Translation and Commentary, Oriental Institute Publications 3 (Chicago 1930).

- Breasted 1930 II: J. H. Breasted, The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. Published in Facsimile and Hieroglyphic Transliteration with Translation and Commentary in two Volumes. II. Facsimile Plates and Line for Line Hieroglyphic Transliteration, Oriental Institute Publications 4 (Chicago 1930).

- von Deines – Grapow – Westendorf 1958 I: H. von Deines – H. Grapow – W. Westendorf, Grundriss der Medizin der alten Ägypter. IV,1. Übersetzung der medizinischen Texte (Berlin 1958), 126, 172–199, 266, 272, 302–303.

- von Deines – Grapow – Westendorf 1958 II: H. von Deines – H. Grapow – W. Westendorf, Grundriss der Medizin der alten Ägypter. IV,2. Übersetzung der medizinischen Texte. Erläuterungen (Berlin 1958), 22–23, 140–155, 248.

- von Deines – Grapow 1959: H. von Deines – H. Grapow, Grundriss der Medizin der Alten Ägypter. VI. Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Drogennamen (Berlin 1959).

- von Deines – Westendorf 1961: H. von Deines – W. Westendorf, Grundriss der Medizin der alten Ägypter. VII,1. Wörterbuch der medizinischen Texte. Erste Hälfte (-r) (Berlin 1961).

- von Deines – Westendorf 1962: H. von Deines – W. Westendorf, Grundriss der Medizin der alten Ägypter. VII,1. Wörterbuch der medizinischen Texte. Zweite Hälfte (h-) (Berlin 1962).

- Ebbell 1939: B. Ebbell, Die alt-ägyptische Chirurgie. Die chirurgischen Abschnitte des Papyrus E. Smith und Papyrus Ebers, Skrifter utgitt av det norske Videnskaps-Akademi i Oslo. Historisk-Filosofisk klasse 2 (Oslo 1939), 7–72.

- Grapow 1958: H. Grapow, Grundriss der Medizin der alten Ägypter. V. Die medizinischen Texte in hieroglyphischer Umschreibung autographiert (Berlin 1958), 299–348, 455–456, 466–467, 519–523.

- Kosack 2011: W. Kosack, Der medizinische Papyrus Edwin Smith. The New York Academy of Medicine, Inv. 217. Neu in Hieroglyphen übertragen, übersetzt und bearbeitet (Berlin 2011).

- Meyerhof 1931: M. Meyerhof, Über den "Papyrus Edwin Smith". Das älteste Chirurgiebuch der Welt, in: Deutsche Zeitschrift für Chirurgie 231, 1931, 645–690.

- Sanchez – Meltzer 2012: G. M. Sanchez – E. S. Meltzer, The Edwin Smith Papyrus. Updated Translation of the Trauma Treatise and Modern Medical Commentaries (Atlanta 2012).

- Westendorf 1962: W. Westendorf, Grundriss der Medizin der alten Ägypter. VIII. Grammatik der medizinischen Texte (Berlin 1962), 328 with note 2.

- Westendorf 1966: W. Westendorf, Papyrus Edwin Smith. Ein medizinisches Lehrbuch aus dem Alten Ägypten. Wund- und Unfallchirurgie. Zaubersprüche gegen Seuchen, verschiedene Rezepte. Aus dem Altägyptischen übersetzt, kommentiert und herausgegeben, Hubers Klassiker der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften 9 (Bern 1966).

- Westendorf 1999: W. Westendorf, Handbuch der altägyptischen Medizin, Handbuch der Orientalistik I 36,1 (Leiden/Boston/Köln 1999), 16–22.

Bibliographic references

- Bierbrier 2012: M. L. Bierbrier (Ed.), Who was who in Egyptology, 4(London 2012), 515.

- Dawson 1934: W. R. Dawson, Charles Wycliffe Goodwin, 1817-1878. A Pioneer in Egyptology (London 1934), 110–121.

- Fischer-Elfert 2013: H.-W. Fischer-Elfert, Anfang eines iry.w-Traktats des wti-Umwicklers inclusive einer post-mortalen Thanatologie, in: Chronique d’Égypte 88 (175), 2013, 15–34, here: 26.

- Grapow 1955: H. Grapow, Grundriss der Medizin der alten Ägypter. II. Von den medizinischen Texten. Art, Inhalt, Sprache und Stil der medizinischen Einzeltexte sowie Überlieferung, Bestand und Analyse der medizinischen Papyri (Berlin 1955), 88–90, 108–112.

- Kilgour 1993: F. G. Kilgour, Locating Information in an Egyptian Text of the 17th Century B.C., in: Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 44,5, 1993, 292–297.

- Pommerening 2014: T. Pommerening, Die šsꜣw-Lehrtexte der heilkundigen Literatur des Alten Ägypten. Traditionen und Textgeschichte, in: D. Bawanypeck – A. Imhausen (Ed.), Traditions of Written Knowledge in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Proceedings of Two Workshops Held at Goethe-University, Frankfurt/Main in December 2011 and May 2012, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 403 (Münster 2014), 7–46.

- Wilson 1964: J. A. Wilson, Signs & Wonders upon Pharaoh. A History of America Egyptology (Chicago 1964), 52–57, 230.

A complete bibliography can be found here.

Dr. Peter Dils

Translation and Commentary

Full metadata, translation and commentary see German version.