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Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine

Ancient Sources, Translations, and Modern Medical Analyses

Jo Ann Scurlock

Publication Year: 2005

To date, the pathbreaking medical contributions of the early Mesopotamians have been only vaguely understood. Due to the combined problems of an extinct language, gaps in the archeological record, the complexities of pharmacy and medicine, and the dispersion of ancient tablets throughout the museums of the world, it has been nearly impossible to get a clear and comprehensive view of what medicine was really like in ancient Mesopotamia._x000B_The collaboration of medical expert Burton R. Andersen and cuneiformist JoAnn Scurlock makes it finally possible to survey this collected corpus and discern magic from experimental medicine in Ashur, Babylon, and Nineveh. Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine is the first systematic study of all the available texts, which together reveal a level of medical knowledge not matched again until the nineteenth century A.D. Over the course of a millennium, these nations were able to develop tests, prepare drugs, and encourage public sanitation. Their careful observation and recording of data resulted in a description of symptoms so precise as to enable modern identification of numerous diseases and afflictions._x000B_

Published by: University of Illinois Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

We wish to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for their generous support without which this book would have been impossible. We would also like to thank the following people who read drafts of some or all of the chapters and who made many valuable...

Concordance of Sigla

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pp. xi-xiv

Translator’s Notes

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pp. xv-xvi

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pp. xvii-xxiii

It is our objective to provide a comprehensive review and analysis of all available ancient Mesopotamian texts dealing with medical diagnosis or prognosis. Unfortunately, some of the references are so fragmented, damaged, or limited in information that nothing useful can be said about them. In these cases...


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pp. xxvi-27

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1. The Ancient Mesopotamian Context

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pp. 1-12

Ancient Mesopotamia, the “cradle of civilization,” is one of the sources of our own Western medical tradition.2 It vies with ancient Egypt for the honor of having produced the world’s earliest recorded medical texts. And yet, even the most basic questions remain unanswered. From what diseases did...

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2. General Health and Public Health Practices

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pp. 13-25

The general level of health in a society is less influenced by the quality of its medical care than it is by the quality of its nutrition, public and personal hygiene, and the techniques used to prevent and control contagious diseases. Using these measures, ancient Mesopotamians deserve...

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3. Infectious Diseases

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pp. 26-87

Tools of modern medicine allow us to differentiate many infectious diseases that have similar signs and symptoms. Some of these tools are the light and electron microscopes, techniques of growing infectious agents in culture media, and DNA and RNA analysis. Based purely on careful clinical observations, the physicians of ancient...

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4. Sexually Transmitted Disease (STDs)

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pp. 88-97

Information is available from sources outside the medical texts about sexual mores and practices in Mesopotamia. This allows for some speculation as to their influence on the incidence and spread of sexually transmitted diseases. It is known that women were expected to be virgins at first marriage...

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5. Genitourinary Tract Diseases

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pp. 98-115

Much of ancient Mesopotamia was dry and hot with little shade. These conditions placed the inhabitants at greater risk of dehydration and concentrated urine, and the potential for developing kidney stones. Another factor is the likely presence of Schistosomiasis hematobium in ancient...

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6. Gastrointestinal Diseases

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pp. 116-154

The asipu had an excellent understanding of the anatomy of the intestinal tract as well as a good grasp of many of the common gastrointestinal diseases. A specialized vocabulary was used to describe gastrointestinal diseases, a good indication of the sophistication and precision...

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7. Metabolic and Nutritional Diseases

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pp. 155-164

Abnormalities in growth, development, and energy production can be caused by acquired or inherited defects in biochemical pathways and by nutritional deficiencies. Hormonal (endocrine) abnormalities may also play a role in growth and development. The signs and symptoms produced...

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8. Heart, Circulatory System, and Lungs

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pp. 165-184

The physicians of ancient Mesopotamia were aware that the heart has a rhythmic movement and that there are structures throughout the body that contain blood. They sometimes referred to these structures literally as “vessels with blood,” but more typically in medical texts, muscles...

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9. Eyes, Ears, and Nose

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pp. 185-207

The importance of good vision to an individual’s activities and his or her functioning within society caused the asipu to be acutely aware of the signs and symptoms of eye diseases (IGI.GIG).1 He also devised a series of technical terms to describe various degrees and types of vision loss...

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10. Skin and Hair

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pp. 208-246

Modern physicians consider the skin to be the window of the body because so many diseases leave important clues on its surface. It is clear from reviewing ancient Mesopotamian medical literature that asipus had reached the same conclusion. The number and variety of signs and symptoms...

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11. Bones and Joints

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pp. 247-258

Modern people tend to think of broken bones (fractures) as less serious medical problems because of our facility in stabilizing the broken bone until it fully heals. Fractures in early humans must have been life-threatening problems. Without stabilizing the bone in the correct position...

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12. Obstetrics and Gynecology

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pp. 259-283

Women’s illnesses, including gynecological and obstetrical problems, received considerable attention from ancient Mesopotamian physicians. Treatments were prescribed for most of them, and the patients were followed as closely as their male counterparts. Judging from the clinical texts...

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13. Neurology

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pp. 284-344

The signs and symptoms associated with diseases of the nervous system provide some of the most unique and focused findings. These abnormalities can readily be found by an observant physician, a characteristic that certainly applies to the asipu. Another advantage to the student of neurologic...

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14. Trauma and Shock

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pp. 345-353

Asipus were provided with ample opportunities to observe trauma victims. The armies of Assyrian kings contemporary with the bulk of the surviving medical texts were protected by shields, helmets, and flexible suits of armor made from iron scales sewn onto a cloth backing. Wars...

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15. Poisons

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pp. 354-366

A poison is any substance which, when relatively small amounts are ingested, inhaled, or absorbed, will cause illness or death. Ancient cultures must have first learned of such harmful substances in their efforts to find edible plants. Poisonous plants would have been quickly...

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16. Mental Illness

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pp. 367-385

There is a sufficient record in many cultures, regions of the world, and times for us to conclude that mental illness is a problem common to human society. The peoples of ancient Mesopotamia must have shared this problem, and the medical texts discussed in this chapter show that...

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17. Pediatrics

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pp. 386-417

The birth process and the early years of life are subject to many risks of morbidity and mortality in the current era, and those risks were even greater in ancient Mesopotamia. Inherited diseases often become evident early in life, and the immature immune system of children places them...

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18. Dental and Oral Diseases

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pp. 418-428

Many of the conditions that manifest oral signs or symptoms are complex and often systemic diseases. In these cases, the references and associated discussions are included in other chapters, but are cross-referenced here. Toothache, however, is a focal problem which can reach a level...

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19. Ancient Etiologies: The Naming of Disease Patterns

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pp. 429-528

This chapter will explore the approaches used by ancient Mesopotamian physicians to identify and name syndromes or patterns of disease (ancient etiologies). Although ancient Mesopotamian medicine was remarkable for its foundation in prior observations, the asipu was still an intellectual...

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20. Prognostics

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pp. 529-548

The importance of correct diagnosis looms large in both ancient and modern medicine. It guides therapy and patient management, and can be the foundation for approaches to preventive measures. Prognosis is an allied skill that can require as much medical knowledge and intuition...

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pp. 549-551

In many of the previous books and articles on the subject of ancient Mesopotamian medicine, little credit has been given to the medical knowledge and skills of these early physicians. Although the roles of viruses and bacteria were played by gods/goddesses, ghosts, and demons, it does not...

Unsolved Puzzles Appendix

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pp. 553-573

Chart Showing the Arrangement of Entries in the Diagnostic/Prognostic Series

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pp. 575-677


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pp. 679-764


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pp. 765-778


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pp. 807-811


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pp. 779-879

E-ISBN-13: 9780252092381
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252029561

Page Count: 912
Publication Year: 2005