The Edwin Smith papyrus, a case of ancient aphasia.

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The Edwin Smith Papyus; a case of ancient aphasia.

Pierre Paul Broca, the French 19th century physician is often credited with the discovery of the language disorder which bares his name, Broca’s aphasia (also known as expressive aphasia). Broca’s aphasia is characterised by the loss of the ability to produce fluent language. Broca is also credit as having demonstrated the first anatomical proof of the localization of brain function. These discoveries were made possible when he was introduced to a patient that is famous in psychological and neurological circles, patient ‘Tan’ (Louis Leborgne).

However, recent archaeological findings show that Paul Broca was in fact beaten to the discovery of expressive aphasia by some 4000 years. An ancient Egyptian papyrus that was bought by the antique dealer Edwin Smith in 1862 has been translated and discovered to be an ancient surgical treatise. The papyrus consists of all of the medical knowledge that was known to the ancient Egyptians about 4000 years ago. It contains descriptions of patients with a large variety of medical conditions from tumours and fractures, to wounds of the head and sprained vertebra. Among the patient descriptions in the papyrus is one that sticks out as the first description of expressive aphasia. The text describes the frustration of the patient and the patient’s inability to speak fluently.The text reads as:

If thou examnist a man having a wound in his temple, penetrating to the bone and perforating his temporal bone….if thou ask him concerning his malady and he speak not to thee; while copious tears fall from both his eyes, so that he thrusts his hand often to his face that he may wipe both his eyes with the back of his hand as a child does.”

The Edwin Smith papyrus provides a unique picture of the ancient Egyptian understanding of expressive aphasia, it is the first known recording of any form of aphasia. The description in the papyrus predates Pierre Paul Broca’s discovery by some 4000 years.

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Daniel Edgcumbe

I am studying towards my PhD in cognitive neuroscience at a leading London university

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