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Director’s Council of Public Representatives (COPR)

NIH Public Bulletin – April 2010

Roll the Scroll: Experience an Ancient Text on Your Computer

Format: Web Site
Institute: National Library of Medicine (NLM)

History and high-tech merge in a new 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 Smith Papyrus was written in Egyptian hieratic script around the 17th century BCE but was probably based on material from a thousand years earlier. 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 explanations of the case, which resemble footnotes.

"The Smith Papyrus is extremely important," said NLM Director Donald A.B. 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."

Fortunately for potential viewers of the scroll, the 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.

Next Steps

You can read the Smith Papyrus at Visit to find technical requirements for computers.

This page last reviewed on November 1, 2012

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