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Replica of Ayurvedic surgical instrument representing a wolf

20th century replica
Welcome Collection

Replica of Ayurvedic surgical instrument representing a wolf. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This surgical instrument is a replica, made by a modern craftsperson following a description from a text that was written down during the Maurya Empire. That book was the Susruta Samhita, the teachings of an Indian physician and surgeon, Susruta, who lived around 500 BCE. These Indian texts are at least as old — and perhaps older — than the Greek texts that influenced Western (that is, European and US) medicine. It is one of the basic texts of Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient medical tradition of South Asia. The book describes 1,120 illnesses and 700 medicinal plants. It covers topics such as the qualifications of doctors and nurses, diagnosis of illness, anatomy, surgical practices, and treatment for poisons. The amount of information in this book leads to the interpretation that doctors had been practicing medicine and improving their knowledge for many centuries before this material was written down. How would writing down the information help medical knowledge spread?

This replica of an ancient instrument includes the head of a wolf, by the logic that the “mouth” has sharp edges for cutting. There was an entire tradition of Indian medicine that was fully formed at the time that it was first written down around or during the Maurya Empire. Students should understand that once written, the Susruta Samhita was copied and distributed around South Asia. The creation of the Maurya Empire probably made that distribution easier and wider. The structure of Ayurvedic medicine is sufficiently different from the structure of Greek medicine that it is difficult for historians of science to make interpretations about how one might have influenced the other, but because Greeks and Romans visited India and Indians may have visited the Mediterranean region, it is likely that some knowledge about medicine passed from one group of physicians to the other. However, Indian physicians drew on the structure of Susruta and Caraka, while Mediterranean doctors looked to Aristotle, the Hippocratic corpus, and Galen to understand how the human body worked.