Staves & Snakes | The Weird History of Medical Symbols

(Last Updated On: March 20, 2019)
Staves & Snakes | The Weird History of Medical Symbols

Two similar images with wildly different roots have come to be popular in medical symbols and illustrations; each one has a staff and a snake or snakes spiraling around it. The Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus aren’t actually the same symbol, or even from the same source, but now their histories are permanently intertwined.

Snakes & Staves

The Rod of Asclepius has one snake, twined around a staff. It’s often portrayed as a rough hewn staff. The Caduceus is almost always a smooth staff, with two snakes twining around it in a helix. There are wings at the top of the staff as well.

The Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of Asclepius was the first of the two symbols to be used in a medical context. Its roots are in Greek mythology.

The story of Asclepius: Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a nymph named Coronis, and after a pretty gnarly childhood (classic Greek mythology), he eventually learned medicine well enough to return a patient from the dead. Zeus did not care for this and killed him with a lightning bolt. Apollo gets him immortalized in the constellation “Ophiuchus” – also known as “The Serpent Bearer” and Asclepius became a god of medicine.

His temples were called asclepeions, and were places of healing and learning. Hippocrates was possibly taught in an asclepeion, and as a result, Asclepius was one of the important names in the original Hippocratic oath. Snakes were revered as one of his symbols and roamed around his temples freely.

Why does it look like that?

Asclepius in particular, and healers in general, were associated with snakes in Greece. But the reasons for that aren’t entirely clear – some think snakes represent rebirth due to their shedding skin, or the duality of cure and poison due to their venom. But there are other theories as well; in some stories Moses used a staff with a snake on it that could cure snake bites. Weirder still, some believe it was based on ancient worm treatments, where parasites would be pulled out of the body and twined around a stick.

The Caduceus

The Caduceus was not considered a symbol of the field of medicine originally. It was instead, a symbol of the god Hermes. As the god of commerce, and in particular, traveling salesman, that might feel like a weird choice for the medical context. But Greek gods usually had multiple purviews, and he was also associated with alchemy, wisdom, and the passage to the underworld.

Why does it look like that?

Originally, the things twined around Hermes’ staff were actually ribbons, not snakes. But after time the design, whether accidentally or intentionally, shifted to two snakes facing each other. The wings at the top are another classic symbol of Hermes – as a messenger and a god of travelers, it’s a natural fit.

History of the misconception

There are a few examples of the Caduceus being used in medical or medical-adjacent contexts in ancient times. Alchemists and oculists, for example, used the symbol occasionally. But its use was not widespread as a medical symbol until the US military took it on.

The Caduceus has shown up on US military uniforms as far back as the 1850’s. It was formally adopted in 1871 by the Marine Hospital Service. Hospital stewards in the field are not technically doctors, which has been cited as one of the reasons the Caduceus is used over the Rod of Asclepius. But the arguments over the symbol have raged on for years. When challenged, officials have suggested that it wasn’t chosen for medical connotations anyway. To them, it represented neutrality and noncombatant status.

The Caduceus was subsequently adopted by the Army Medical Department and the Navy Hospital Corps, and for a while, the American Medical Association. Its use as a medical symbol is still controversial in some ways, due to the discomfort with its associations with commerce, thievery, and death.

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