Many 'medical' organisations use a symbol of a short rod entwined

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Many 'medical' organisations use a symbol of a short rod entwined

Dr. Mindy Schwartz History of Medicine: Once Case at a Time, 2006

    The True Myth:

    A Brief History of the Asklepian as the Symbol of Medicine

    M. Justin Coffey, MSIV

    I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfil according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant.” The Hippocratic Oath opens with these words, as those entering the field of medicine first pay homage to the god Apollo; his son Asclepius, the god of healing; as well as Asclepius daughters, Hygieia and Panaceia, literally “hygiene” and “all healing,” respectively. With a history this ancient and with an oath this historical, why does ambiguity still dominate the question of the true symbol of medicine?

    Many medical organizations, however, use a symbol of a short rod entwined by two snakes and topped by a pair of wings. This symbol is the caduceus or magic wand of the Greek god Hermes (Roman Mercury). Hermes was messenger of the gods, inventor of incantations, conductor of the dead, and protector of merchants and thieves. He was the god of commerce, eloquence, invention, travel and theft, and so was a symbol of heralds and commerce, not medicine. The Hippocratic Oath nowhere mentions Hermes. The term caduceus is derived from

    the Greek karykeion, which means "herald's staff", itself based on the word eruko meaning

    restrain, control.The link between the caduceus of Hermes and medicine seems to have arisen by the seventh century A.D., when Hermes had come to be linked with alchemy. Alchemists were referred to as the sons of Hermes, as Hermetists or Hermeticists, and as "practitioners of the hermetic arts". Today there are clear occult associations with the caduceus.

    Professional and patient centered organizations (e.g. the WHO and the AMA) use the correct and traditional symbol of medicine, the staff of Asclepius, with a single serpent encircling a staff, classically a rough-hewn knotty tree limb. The staff and serpent is thought to symbolize the renewal of youth as the serpent casts off its skin. The single serpent and staff also appear on a Sumerian vase of circa 2000 B.C. representing the healing god Ningishita, the prototype of the Greek Asclepius.

    Asclepius is the god of healing. He is the son of Apollo and the nymph Coronis. The myth of Asclepius tells how he came to be a healer. While pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis secretly took a second, mortal lover. When Apollo found out, he sent Artemis to kill her. While Coronis was burning on the funeral pyre, Apollo felt pity for the unborn child and rescued him from Coronis’

    corpse. Asclepius was taught about medicine and healing by the wise centaur Cheiron and became so skilled ithat he succeeded in bringing one of his patients back from the dead. Zeus felt that such power threatened the immortality of the gods, so he killed the healer with a thunderbolt. At Apollo's request, Asclepius was placed among the stars as Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer. The Hippocratic writers claim direct descent from Asclepius.

    So how did the symbol of the single serpent around a rod become associated with Asclepius? The probable medical origin of the symbol comes from ancient medicine itself. In antiquity infection by parasitic worms was common. The filarial worm Dracunculus medinensis,

    aka "the fiery serpent," aka "the dragon of Medina," aka "the guinea worm," crawled around the


Dr. Mindy Schwartz History of Medicine: Once Case at a Time, 2006

    victim's body, just under the skin. Physicians treated this infection by cutting a slit in the patient's skin, just in front of the worm's path. As the worm crawled out of the cut, the physician carefully wound the pest around a stick until the entire animal had been removed. It is believed that because this type of infection was so common, physicians and healers advertised their services by displaying a sign with the worm on a stick. Thus, the single serpent around a stick became known as the Asclepion.

    When medical schools developed in ancient Greece, they were usually connected to temples or shrines called Asclepieia, dedicated to Asclepius. The Asclepieia became very important in Greek society. The sick believed they could be cured by sleeping in them. They would often visit, offering gifts and sacrifices to the god, and be treated by priest healers, called the Asclepiadae. The worship of Asclepius spread to Rome and continued as late as the sixth century.

    The use of the Asclepian motif was very popular throughout antiquity. However, from the early Christian era to the Middle Ages, many of the ancient Greco-Roman gods and symbols were suppressed by the Catholic Church. At the same time, uroscopy, or “water-casting,” came to play

    than important role in medical diagnosis. Thus, from the 6 century until the Renaissance, the urine

    flask replaced the Asclepian as the symbol of the profession.

    The changes in religious imagination and values that took place after the Reformation in the Protestant countries of northern Europe had direct repercussions on the choice of medical patrons and symbols. As Catholic patron saints of medicine lost favor, they were replaced by the rediscovered symbols of antiquity. Subsequently, in countries such as England, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, illustrations, art works, and statues of Asclepius began to proliferate. Asclepius was no longer worshipped as a divinity. However, because of the intense interest in the symbolism, learning, and traditions of the Greco-Roman period, the Asclepian was again recognized and firmly established as the symbol of medicine. From the beginning of the 17th century, the figure of Asclepius began appearing on medical medals and calling cards. The same pattern seen in antiquity emerged--the symbol was used only in a medical context, whereas the caduceus, although used by some medical organizations, was associated with other fields, especially commerce, communications, chemistry, and pharmacy.

    In most countries, the Asclepian is firmly established as the symbol of military and civilian medicine. Therefore, it is difficult to understand the widespread use of the caduceus in the United States and Great Britain, especially because it is used side by side with the Asclepian motif. For example, the emblem of the U.S. Public Health Service bears the caduceus, whereas the National Library of Medicine and the American Medical Association prominently display the Asclepian. The proliferation of the caduceus in more modern times is probably due to some European publishing houses. In particular, John Churchill of London, the prolific medical publisher, used a caduceus printer’s mark on the title page of many of the medical and scientific books he exported to the

    United States. The mark may have symbolized Churchill’s desire to unite medicine and literature

    because it consisted of two serpents labeled “medicina” and “literis” and a motto “Irrupta Tenet

    Copula, which means unbreakable bond unites.” The mass publication and dissemination of

    medical texts thus perpetuated the use of the caduceus in England, at least among commercial medical ventures.


Dr. Mindy Schwartz History of Medicine: Once Case at a Time, 2006

    In the United States, the major reason for the continued prevalence of the caduceus as the incorrect symbol of medicine is the U.S. military. In 1902 the U.S. Army Medical Corps implemented a new uniform code. In planning the uniform, Captain Frederick Reynolds made an ill informed decision to adopt the caduceus as the golden collar badge worn by all personnel, possibly per the erroneous suggestion of an assistant surgeon that “several foreign powers, notably the English” displayed the caduceus. To this day, within the military the badge insignia of the U.S.

    Army Medical Corps (USAMC) is the caduceus, but its coat of arms, which is that of the U.S. Army Medical Department (USAMEDD) (adopted in 1818), bears the Asclepian.

     When looking back on history, we often ask, “So what?” Here, it is important to remember

    that the Asclepian ought to be used as the proper symbol of medicine. The values embodied by Asclepius as the god of healing are consistent with the goals of modern medicine and of practicing physicians. Hermes, on the other hand, was a purely vile and unethical character, much more like a snake or serpentor even two of them!than a filarial worm. He is certainly not one with whom

    those who aim to alleviate suffering would like to align themselves. Today’s physicians would do

    well to remember the name of the gods to whom they swore when taking that most historic pledge, the Hippocratic Oath.

    Mercury (Hermes) & merchant approach the disapproving Asclepius (Physician) and the naked Graces (Meditrine, Hygeia, and Panacea). Engraved from an original in the then Museum Pio Clemens in Rome Galerie Mythologique, Recueil de Monuments by Aubin Louis Millin, Paris 1811.


    1. Wilcox RA, Whitham EM. The symbol of modern medicine: why one snake is more than

    two. Ann Intern Med. Apr 15 2003;138(8):673-677.

    2. Friedlander, Walter J. The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in

    Medicine. New York, Greenwood, 1992.



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