The use of the medical symbol stems thousands of years. It has two representations. One is the staff of Asclepius, and the other, the caduceus of Hermes. Medical organizations have adopted the Asclepius symbol of a staff and serpent as a representation of medicine. Pharmaceutical corporations and the military have adopted the caduceus symbol. Both symbols have entirely different representations, but have come to symbolize the ideology of medicine.
Staff of Asclepius
According to Dr. Keith Blayney of the Medical Council of New Zealand, organizations such as the World Health Organization use the Asclepius staff symbol. Asclepius was once a physician of medicine in Greece. Asclepius, in myth, was the god of healing. The idea of the staff was to symbolize an idea of rejuvenation, since snakes shed their skins.
Single Serpent Origin
Infection from parasites was common in early civilization. The most common parasite was the worm Dracunculus medinensis, which was known as the fiery serpent. Early physicians would make an incision on the path of the worm on a patient's skin. As the worm would make its way out of the incision, the physician would take a stick, wrap the worm around the stick, and carefully wind the pest around the stick until it was extracted. According to Dr. Blayney, the practice of removing the fiery serpent was such as common practice, that physicians would advertise their services with a worm on a stick.
The Staff Symbol
Since the 16th century, the use of both the staff of Asclepius, and the caduceus of Hermes, were used in printing. They were used on the covers of pharmacopeias (books used in the identification of medicines) from the 16th to 18th centuries. Eventually the use of Asclepius' staff has become the symbol of medicine for medical organizations.
Hermes is the god of magical incantations, conductor of the dead, and watcher of merchants and thieves. The caduceus is Hermes magical staff. During the 7th century, Hermes was linked to alchemy. According to Dr. Blayney, alchemists were thought of as being the sons of Hermes, or Hermetists. It was during the 7th century that the use of the caduceus for the symbol of medicine began. The caduceus was represented by a staff with two intertwined snakes, and wings.
Alchemists not only practiced the arts of alchemy, but medicine, pharmacology, and chemistry as well, which is why they adopted the use of the caduceus. The symbol of the caduceus became a common medical symbol for many medical organizations, especially during the 19th and 20th centuries. According to Dr. Blayney, the use of the caduceus became even more prevalent with the adoption of the symbol by the Medical Department of the United States Army in 1902. Since the 20th century, medical organizations have come to use the staff of Asclepius more, while the symbol of the caduceus can be seen prevalently with pharmaceutical corporations and the Medical Corp.
- Dzmitry Stankevich/Hemera/Getty Images