Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The el-Lahun gynecological papyrus

Chinmoy K. Bose 
Kolkata, India

Twelfth Dynasty gynaecological papyrus found at el-Lahun

The Kahun Gynecological Papyrus (Twelfth Dynasty 1800 BC)1-3 is the oldest available medical record of Egyptian civilization, a three page document one meter long and about thirty-three cm wide that deals with gynecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, and contraception. The name Amenemhet III was written in the right upper corner behind third page name. The document was torn in places and patched with gum and papyrus. It was written in Hieratic script, not in hieroglyphs, and became legible owing to Jean-François Champollion in 1806 after the discovery of the Rosetta stone by Pierre-François Bouchard in 1799.

The Berlin papyrus, found in 1827 and dating from the Nineteenth Dynasty, was the first medical papyrus to be discovered. Also from the Nineteenth Dynasty is the Chester Beatty Papyrus, found in the workers’ village at Deir el-Medina in 1928. The London & Edwin Smith Papyrus (1860) and the Ebers Papyrus (1862) originate from the Eighteenth Dynasty. The Hearst Papyrus was given in 1901 by a peasant in exchange for some waste soil he required as fertilizer. Others are the Ramesseum Papyri from the Thirteenth Dynasty, the Carlsberg Papyrus of 1200 BC, and the Brooklyn Papyrus of the Thirtieth Dynasty. The Berlin, Ebers, Ramesseum, Carlsberg papyri also covered gynaecology and obstetrics.

The gynecological papyrus has been dated to originate from the Middle Kingdom (Twelfth Dynasty) to the reign of the childless female-king Sobekneferu, whose interest in gynecology might have been sparked by her elder sister dying at an early age. The dynasty was founded by Amenemhet I, who did not descend from the royal family and had become pharaoh perhaps by killing Mentuhotep IV of the Eleventh Dynasty. For efficient administration Amenemhet I had taken the kingdom from Thebes to Itzet-Tawy (modern Fayum), where natural land depression with Lake Moeris could store Nile water for good agriculture. In time el-Lahun, el-Lisht, Dahshur, and Hawara became important tomb and pyramid towns in or near Fayum. Thus Amenemhet I had his pyramid in el-Lisht. The fourth ruler, Senusret II, had his pyramid in el-Lahun, which was a big town with a workers’ village northwest of pyramid that continued to be used until 230 BC, when the Lahun branch of the Nile silted.

el-Lahun, Pyramid of Senusret II
Photo by Einsamer Schütze

The story of the discovery of the papyrus starts at el-Lahun, about 100 km south-west of Cairo on western side of Nile, located perhaps just north of the entrance to the modern town Fayum. Sir William Mathew Flinders Petrie FRS  (1853–1942), the first chair of Egyptology in the United Kingdom, was two weeks into his archaeological work at the pyramid site of Hawara in late 1888. When he heard that another European had plans to work at the nearby el-Lahunand at Medinet Gurob, he quickly dispatched a few of his workmen to both sites to claim them as his own and save them from destruction. Kahun was a local name for the place; and he adopted the name. At El-Lahun work initially started after February 1889 at the pyramid and the Valley Temple of Senusret II. Petrie decided that the adjoining town of Kahun was of the same age and to survey the area. The most remarkable discovery was that of the village of the workers, who both constructed the pyramid and then served the funerary cult of the king. The village was about 800 meters from the pyramid and lies in the desert a short distance from the edge of cultivation. Excavations started at the southern end of the “Western Quarter” of the town in May 1889. Several rows of terrace housing were excavated: small working men’s houses, medium sized houses that may have accommodated the priests and the personnel servicing the temple, and the royal mortuary cult.4, 5 It was here that the Kahun medical papyri were found. Among the curiosities found in workmen’s houses were wooden boxes containing the skeletons of infants buried beneath the floors of many of the houses.

The text of the manuscript is divided into thirty-four sections, each dealing with a specific problem and containing diagnoses and treatment; no prognosis is given. Treatments are non-surgical, mainly applying medicines to the affected body part or swallowing them. The womb is at times seen as the source of complaints manifesting themselves in other body parts.

The texts of the Kahun papyrus included the business papers of the cult of Senusret II; hymns to King Senusret III; the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, which deals with gynaecological illnesses and conditions; the Lahun Mathematical Papyri, a collection of mathematical texts; a veterinarian papyrus; and a late Middle Kingdom account, listing festivals. The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus contains an extraordinary series of tests for fertility, pregnancy, and to determine the sex of the unborn child. Perhaps the most famous text says:

. . . to see if a woman will or will not bear a child. Emmer and barley, the lady should moisten with her urine every day, like dates and like sand in two bags. If they all grow, she will bear a child. If the barley grows it will be a male, if the emmer grows it will be a female, if neither grow she will not bear a child.

In a modern botany laboratory in Cairo, Ghalioungui and his colleagues carried out a trial of this Egyptian test, which seems to be more of a test for pregnancy rather than fertility, and determined that non-pregnancy urines and roughly half of the pregnancy urines arrested germination.6,7 The ability of the test to predict the newborn’s gender, however, was not so successful (19 of 40).  Another method instructed the woman to place an onion bulb in her vagina overnight. If the odor of the onion could be smelled on the woman’s breath by morning, then she was considered fertile.


  1. Flinders Petrie W M. (1890) Kahun, Gurob, and Hawara, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, and Co.
  2. Flinders Petrie W M. (1891) Illahun, Kahun and Gurob.  London : David Nutt.
  3. Griffith F Ll  (1898) The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob. London: Bernard Quaritch.
  4.  Gallorini  C. (1998) A Reconstruction of Petrie’s Excavation at the Middle KingdomSettlement of Kahun, in: S. Quirke (ed.), Lahun Studies (Reigate,), 42-59.
  5. Collier M, Quirke S (2002)  The UCL Lahun Papyri: Letters.   [Book].  BAR International Series 1083. Archaeopress: Oxford.
  6. Rosalie D. (2011) Ancient Egyptian Medicine: An Appraisal Based on Scientific Methodology  p. 263 in Under the potter’s tree, Studies on Ancient Egypt (eds.  Aston D, Bader B, Gallorini C et al), UITGEVERIJ PEETERS en DEPARTEMENT OOSTERSE STUDIESLEUVEN – PARIS – WALPOLE, MA.
  7. Estes J W. (1989) The Medical Skills of Ancient Egypt, Science History Publications, Canton.
  8. Ghalioungu P, Khalil S, and Ammar A R. (1963) Medical Historian 7:241-246.

CHINMOY K. BOSE, MBBS, DGO, MD, PhD, DSc Fellow, is a gynaecological oncologist.  His research is mainly on ovarian cancer; from etiology to drug development. He has done fellowship in St Bartholomeus, London, and in Muenster Univ. He is a DSc scholar trying to detect cure of ovarian cancer from inexpensive Indian herb.  He is an expert on the drug regulatory board of India.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2017 – Volume 9, Issue 2

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