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JAMA 100 Years Ago
June 15, 2011

THE OLDEST PRESCRIPTION IN AMERICA

JAMA. 2011;305(23):2475. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.744

What is undoubtedly the oldest prescription in America is listed under Accession Number 988 at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Its date is probably not later than 1500 B. C., some time during the nineteenth dynasty. It is written on a small piece of limestone, about three and one-half by three inches in its present somewhat injured condition, carefully smoothed for the purpose, forming what is called an “ostracon.” The writing was done with a brush and some sort of black ink or paint, for pens did not come into use in Egypt until the Roman time. The substance employed was well adapted to its purpose, for the writing is still quite plain, except near the edges of the stone where fragmentation has occurred. The inscription is in the old cursive hieratic writing, somewhat similar to that of the Ebers papyrus, which dates from about 1600 B. C. It is written on both sides of the stone, with what Egyptologists would probably call typical old Egyptian neglect of such details, from above down on the longer measurement of the stone on one side, but across on the other side, as some ladies of the present day, after having written down one sheet of letter-paper, then turn it over and write crosswise on the back of it. Unfortunately it is not known whence this specimen comes. It was noticed in the museum some years ago by Mr. Max Müller, who recognized its medical character and translated the inscription, though rather unsatisfactorily.1 An effort was then made to find the place of its origin, but the specimen had come with a number of other antique finds of many kinds gathered from various portions of Egypt and its exact provenience, to use the archeologie term, could not be determined.

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