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Columns II (left) and IV (right) of the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus

This papyrus, transcribed in the Seventeenth Century B.C., is a medical treatise that contains the earliest reference to the brain anywhere in human records. According to James Breasted, who translated and published the document in 1930, the word brain image occurs only 8 times in ancient Egyptian, 6 of them on these pages. The papyrus describes here the symptoms, diagnosis, and prognosis of two patients with compound fractures of the skull, and compares the surface of the brain to “those ripples that happen in copper through smelting, with a thing in it that throbs and flutters under your fingers like the weak spot of the crown of a boy before it becomes whole for him.” The red ink highlights the patients’ ailments and their prognoses. (Reproduced, with permission, from the New York Academy of Medicine Library.)



Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant. … It is the same thing which makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with dread and fear, whether by night or by day, brings sleeplessness, inopportune mistakes, aimless anxieties, absent-mindedness, and acts that are contrary to habit. These things that we suffer all come from the brain, when it is not healthy, but becomes abnormally hot, cold, moist, or dry, or suffers any other unnatural affection to which it was not accustomed. Madness comes from its moistness. When the brain is abnormally moist, of necessity it moves, and when it moves neither sight nor hearing are still, but we see or hear now one thing and now another, and the tongue speaks in accordance with the things seen and heard on any occasion. But when the brain is still, a man can think properly.

attributed to Hippocrates

Fifth Century, B.C.

Reproduced, with permission, from The Sacred Disease, in Hippocrates, Vol. 2, page 175, translated by W.H.S. Jones, London and New York: William Heinemann and Harvard University Press. 1923.

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