Words by Georgia Schmidt
Symbolising peace and health, the image of Caduceus has been used for thousands of years, but, have we been using this universal symbol incorrectly? The symbol of Caduceus originated from Greek mythology when the Greek God Hermes attempted to stop a fight between two snakes by throwing his rod at them (1). Hermes was formerly known as the ruler of wealth, fertility and, good fortune. As historians delved deeper into the history of Hermes, they identified him to be a patron of thieves and lies, not a protector of peace and health (2).
The rod of Asclepius owned by Aesculapius, the Greek God of Healing, whose symbol also stemmed from snakes is what caused this confusion. Aesculapius told stories that a snake gave him a herb with resurrecting powers (3). He would show his gratitude by carrying a staff around with one snake on it, not two (3).
Where did we go so wrong?
From hospitals, ambulances services, pharmacies, and many other medical companies, the staff and snakes are everywhere. However, most people are unaware that there are two distinct symbols used with very different meanings. In the 19th century Dr John Churchill, a medical publisher from London, used the symbol of Caduceus on his work (2). Although other British medical publishers did not follow his lead, as a result of his use of the symbol on his publications, it was widely adopted by medical companies and publishers in the United States (2). This is where the Caduceus was inadvertently connected to medicine in the minds of many physicians.
In 1902, the newly appointed Surgeon General of the US ignored the original Coat of Arms and adopted the symbol of Caduceus (1). The US Marine and Public Health Service soon followed in his footsteps (1). This major confusion seemed unique to the United States and was seen to be driven by commercialisation. In 1990, a US study found that 62% of professional associations used the Rod of Asclepius while 37% used the Caduceus (2). Although most professional associations have switched to the correct symbol of medicine, the study also showed that 76% of commercial organisations were still using the Caduceus (2). Major organisations including the World Health Organisation and American Medical Association have adopted the Rod of Asclepius which can still be seen today.
Image 1: The Caduceus versus The Rod of Asclepius (4).
Medicine is full of symbols. The Caduceus was a symbol of professionalism and craft long before the rod of Asclepius was used. Most Australian health services have adopted the rod of Asclepius, or have used other symbols to represent their company while some still use the Caduceus to symbolise professionalism and peace. But if you want to be accurate, it’s the rod of Asclepius that you should be looking for.
1. Prakash M, Johnny J. Things you don′t learn in medical school: Caduceus. Journal of Pharmacy and Bioallied Sciences 2015;7(5):49.
2. Rakel R. The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 1993;270(18):2229.
3. Bremer J. The Caduceus Again. New England Journal of Medicine 1958;258(7):334-6.
4. National Museum of Civil War Medicine. The Caduceus versus the Rod of Asclepius [Internet]. Washington (USA): Civil War Medicine (USA); [updated 2020; cited 2022 Jan 21]. Available from: https://www.civilwarmed.org/caduceus-vs-asclepius/