Take a “Scroll” through One of the World’s Oldest Medical Texts

History and high tech have intersected once again. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, written in the 17th century BCE, but probably based on material from a thousand years earlier, has been added to the National Library of Medicine’s Turning the Pages presentation kiosk. Originally a scroll, it is one of the world’s oldest surviving medical texts.

Thanks to curator Michael North, of NLM’s History of Medicine Division, and Michael Chung and Glenn Pearson, PhD, of NLM’s Communications Engineering Branch, visitors can virtually “scroll” through the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, which was derived from some 15 digitized images of pages from the New York Academy of Medicine.

A text on trauma surgery, the papyrus describes anatomical observations and the examination, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of numerous injuries in exquisite detail, including cranial sutures, the meninges, the external surface of the brain, the cerebrospinal fluid and intracranial pulsations.

It is apparent the ancients recognized the heart, vessels, liver, spleen, kidneys, ureter and bladder, and that blood vessels connect to the heart. However, it appears that the physiological functions of organs and vessels remained a mystery.

There were considerable technical hurdles to overcome in creating the virtual papyrus. For example, creative animation techniques were necessary to have the scroll unroll and flip over correctly.

The development of this system is another major step in NLM’s effort to bring the treasures of medical antiquity to the public. Planning is now underway to create a Web version of the papyrus.