Credit to Africa’s contribution to medicine is often centered around her extensive and diverse medicinal plant life, as well as its people’s work in the craft of fusing different herbs and plants known for their medicinal abilities to create potent medicine. Most people are not aware that even the oldest known descriptions of diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic reasoning in the field of medicine also originate from Africa.
Society has become accustomed to crediting the beginnings of scientific medicine to Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived in the fifth century BC. He was given the distinction of being the “father of Medicine.” Physicians all over the world take the semi-sacred “Hippocratic oath” upon completion of their medical studies, in honor of Hippocrates.
Researchers have discovered that the Edwin Smith Papyrus is the oldest medical manuscript in existence. The papyrus was published in 1930 by James H. Breasted. He spent 10 years translating the document. It is believed to have been written by Imhotep, a descendant of a distinguished architect named Kanofer – who was also recognized as the “Egyptian God of Medicine.”
Although written during the 18th dynasty of ancient Kemet, this manuscript is actually a late copy of an original which was produced early in the Old Kingdom sometime between 4400–4200 BC, and was discovered lying in a tomb in Thebes, Egypt. The Edwin Smith papyrus is a unique treatise containing the oldest known descriptions of signs and symptoms of injuries of the spinal cord. A recent medically based translation of the Smith papyrus shows that it describes information of diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic reasoning.
Although patient demographics, diagnostic techniques and therapeutic options considerably changed over time, the documented rationale on spinal injuries can still be regarded as the “state-of-the-art” reasoning for modern clinical practice. This ancient medical treatise is credited as containing the earliest known scientific writings on rational observations in medicine. A total of 48 cases were presented in the papyrus, 6 of which dealt with injuries to the spine. The cases contain highly accurate descriptions of signs and symptoms of different types of spinal injuries.
The papyrus is apparently very well structured. Each case that is discussed includes the following sub-headings: Introductory heading, significant symptoms, diagnosis and – if considered treatable – recommended treatment. Most of the cases also include an additional “explanation” sub-heading, where unfamiliar terms used in the case description are clarified.
According to Joost van Middendorp, a medical scientist and doctor from South Africa, “It has been suggested that the cases described in the papyrus predominantly concern patients who sustained their injuries during battles or construction work. From this perspective, one may assume that the cases under study deal with relatively young, healthy male patients.”
In ancient Kemet, the first anatomical descriptions appeared in a systemic way in the Edwin Smith papyrus. More than 210 different anatomical parts were described in the manuscript. Furthermore, 48 different injuries to the head, face, neck, thorax and spinal column as well as the appropriate surgical methods for attending to them were also described. Other medical information related to dermatology, dentistry, gynecology, tumors, cardiovascular system, obstetrics, and many more were found in the Ebers Papyrus, which was written around 1500 BC. From these extensive medical transcripts of ancient Kemet, Europeans were able to grasp vital knowledge from the field of medicine.
Although Hippocrates has exercised an immense influence on medicine for nearly 25 centuries, he never gave himself the title of “Father of Medicine.” Moreso, it is evident that Hippocrates and his students drew heavily upon the theories and practices of ancient Egyptian medicine to inform modern medical principles.
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