Isis 93:106-107 (2002)

Of the many kinds of documents to have survived from ancient Egypt, only those concerning mathematical problems or medicine have usually been considered in studies of the history of science—probably because, unlike other Egyptian texts, they deal with their subject in relatively objective terms, an approach that has traditionally defined what is meant by “science.” Medical texts are more numerous than the mathematical documents. They are preserved on papyri and ostraca dating from the Middle Kingdom to the Roman Period ; the most extensive and important of them were written during the New Kingdom and Ramesside Period, about 1550 to 1250 b.c.This corpus was published as a whole and extensively analyzed in a nine‐volume series entitled Grundriß der Medizin der Alten Ägypter . This series, the work of three successive authors, Hermann Grapow, Hildegard von Deines, and Wolfhart Westendorf, includes a hieroglyphic transcription of the texts together with translations, dictionaries, and a grammar, as well as studies of the documents themselves and what they reveal of ancient Egyptian medical knowledge and practice. Westendorf's recent publication is essentially a summary of this series. As such, it is a valuable resource for Egyptologists and historians of science alike, both because the original series is no longer generally available and because it incorporates advances in our knowledge of the Egyptian language and culture over the past quarter century.A short discussion of the character of Egyptian medicine serves as the introduction to the work, the body of which is divided into seven parts. Part 1 deals with the sources themselves and describes the history, contents, and publication of each document; a translation is also provided for some of the briefer texts. Although this section is essentially a catalogue, it contains one of the rare instances in which Westendorf's unparalleled knowledge of the genre can be questioned. Westendorf describes Papyrus Edwin Smith as containing “numerous” instances of Old Egyptian forms and spellings , thus perpetuating the notion that the document was originally composed during the Old Kingdom. In fact, the grammar of the text is that of early Middle Egyptian. Accordingly, although it is the oldest of the surviving medical texts, it is certainly no older than the very end of the Old Kingdom and probably at least a century younger.In Part 2 Westendorf examines the genre of medical documents as a whole. He divides the texts into several different categories: instructions, prognoses, prescriptions, magic, and miscellany. The third part contains an exhaustive analysis of the various ailments discussed in the medical texts, and the fourth deals both with the role of the physician in Egyptian society and, more extensively, with the methods and medicaments used in the treatment of illnesses and injuries. These two parts will be of particular interest to physicians and scholars of the history of medicine, along with Part 5 , in which Westendorf describes survivals of Egyptian medicine in the Christian period and its influence on Greek medicine.Parts 6 and 7 are presented in the second volume, paginated sequentially with the first. Part 6 contains a full translation of the two most important medical texts, Papyrus Ebers and Papyrus Edwin Smith. The final part is devoted to references and includes a bibliography, lists of abbreviations and citations, and several extensive indexes.Westendorf's “handbook” is not only the latest contribution to the study of ancient Egyptian medicine but also the most valuable to appear since the publication of the series on which it is based—and to which Westendorf himself contributed in no small part. As such it deserves a place in the libraries of Egyptologists and historians of science alike
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DOI 10.1086/343277
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