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Academy Papyrus to be Exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Academy’s most ancient holding, and arguably the world's oldest surgical document, the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, will be featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s special exhibition, The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt.

The Edwin Smith papyrus remains the oldest existing surgical document in the world and will be on display at the Met starting September 13, 2005.

Rarely seen even by Egyptologists, the Smith Papyrus dates from approximately 1600 B.C. and has not been exhibited since having been given to the Academy in 1948. The papyrus, which explains techniques for treating injuries to the head and thorax, evidences a vast understanding of medicine on the part of its author. The physician who wrote it knew how to set a broken jaw, for instance, and understood both that the heart was the center of circulatory vessels and that paralysis on one side of the body could be caused by a brain affliction to the other (knowledge lost for 3,000 years before being rediscovered in modern times). In addition to clinical observation, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, the papyrus contains magical incantations against pestilence and a recipe for transforming an old man into a youth. Extensive research about the Papyrus has been published. The Papyrus will be on display at the Met from September 13, 2005, through January 15, 2006.

To complement its presence as the centerpiece of the Met’s exhibition on ancient medicine, the Academy is mounting its own exhibition, Holes in the Head: Mending Head Injuries from Pericles to Bonaparte featuring books from the 15th through the 19th centuries focused on treating head and neck injuries. The exhibition will be on display from September 27, 2005, to January 5, 2006. The Academy will also host a four-part lecture series on Medicine Before Modernity exploring both the changes and continuities that mark the history of medicine. Exhibition and lecture details below.


Holes in the Head: Mending Head Injuries from Pericles to Bonaparte
From September 27, 2005, to January 16, 2006, the Academy Library will mount an exhibition of selected Academy volumes that focus on head and neck injuries, entitled Holes in the Head: Mending Head Injuries from Pericles to Bonaparte. This exhibition will complement at The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which features the Academy’s Edwin Smith Papyrus.

Head injuries figure prominently in the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus; twenty-seven of the forty-eight cases described involve head injuries.

The exhibition will contain books which range from the Renaissance editions of those parts of the Hippocratic corpus that deal with head wounds to the works of Dominique-Jean Larrey, Chief of the Medical Corps during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1799. Larrey is reported to have performed seventy amputations and seven trepanations at Accra in 1799 by one of his early 19th century biographers.

Works by other military surgeons will also be featured including Hieronymous Brunschwieg in the 15th century, Hans von Gersdorf, and Ambroise Paré in the 16th century and John Browne in the 17th century. John Browne’s work, A compleat discourse of wounds . . . whereunto are added the severall fractures of the skull. . . (London, 1678), contains the earliest image of a surgeon trepanning the skull of a patient. Earlier works illustrate the procedure rather generically without reference to the surgeon, or they provide an illustration of a trepanned skull with the appropriate trephines, i.e. the tools used to perform the procedure.


Medicine Before Modernity
We live in a time of such accelerating medical knowledge that our perspective on developments in medicine a mere century ago can seem to flatten what was itself a dynamic and swiftly changing period into some undifferentiated “past,” as remote and unrecognizable as a familiar landscape viewed from the wrong end of a telescope. This four-part lecture series turns the lens around, viewing the history of medicine from the vantage point of one of its foundational documents, the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, a transcription from ca. 1600 B.C., of a much older document. The series starts with two lectures on medicine in the ancient world that explore both the changes and the continuities that mark the history of medicine. The focus then shifts to how this ancient knowledge was rediscovered and embraced by scholars over six hundred years ago, in the early years of “modernity.” Together, the lectures in this series offer instruction on how we to frame our questions about the past—both distant and recent.

Posted on 07/27/2005

Andrew J. Martin
Director of Communications
The New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10029

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