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Vol. LXII, No. 8
April 16, 2010

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Ancient Medical Treasure
NLM’s ‘Turning The Pages’ Lets Users Explore Egyptian Medical Papyrus

  Now, users can journey back to pre-book times and “unroll the scroll,” the world’s oldest known surgical document.  
  Now, users can journey back to pre-book times and “unroll the scroll,” the world’s oldest known surgical document.  

History and high-tech merge in a new offering from the National Library of Medicine. It’s a novel twist on NLM’s popular online system, Turning The Pages, which allows you to turn the pages of a rare book on your computer screen. Now, users can journey back to pre-book times and “unroll the scroll” or, more specifically, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the world’s oldest known surgical document. The scroll is at

The Smith Papyrus was written in Egyptian hieratic script around the 17th century BCE but probably based on material from a thousand years earlier. This collaborative online representation features a new translation by James P. Allen, formerly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and high-resolution scans lent by the scroll’s owner, the New York Academy of Medicine.

“The Smith Papyrus is extremely important,” said NLM director Dr. Donald Lindberg, “because it showed for the first time that Egyptians had a scientific understanding of traumatic injuries based on observable anatomy rather than relying on magic or potions.”

The text is a treatise on trauma surgery and consists of 48 cases dealing with wounds and trauma. Each case is laid out using a carefully prescribed formula: a description of the injury, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment and further case explanations that resemble footnotes.

“This papyrus is unlike most other medical papyri in that it is chiefly rational and does not usually bring the supernatural into the explanations or treatments for injuries—for instance, there is only one incantation,” said Michael North, curator of the project and of rare books in the library’s History of Medicine Division.

Fortunately for potential viewers of the scroll, computer scientists at NLM also relied on sound scientific principles rather than magic to devise a system that allows the unfurling of the scroll on a computer.

“The technical challenges of digitally transforming and making this scroll available on a personal computer were enormous,” said Dr. George Thoma, chief of the Communications Engineering Branch at NLM’s Lister Hill Center. He led the library’s technical efforts and team. “As far as I know, we may be the only library in the world that has mastered the computation and technology to create an easily usable virtual scroll for a personal computer user.”

For Turning The Pages technical requirements for computers, visit NIHRecord Icon

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