Medical Symbols

There are two medical symbols associated with medicine – the single serpent-entwined staff of Asclepius and the double serpent-entwined with surmounting wings staff of Hermes (more commonly knows as the Caduceus).  The single serpent staff represents the staff of Greek demigod Asklepios.  He represents the healing aspect of medicine.  His daughters Hygea, Meditrine, and Panacea also symbolize important aspects of health (cleanliness, medicine, and healing).  The double serpent staff represents Herms, the messenger of gods who has the responsibility of carrying souls into the underworld.  In America, the two serpent symbol is predominately used to signify the medical profession while in the rest of the world, the one serpent symbol is used.

Is the use of the modern caduceus based on a misunderstanding of medical symbols?   Asklepios so exemplified the ideal physician that the term “Asclepiades” was used to refer to many early physicians, including Hippocrates.  The single serpent caduceus comes from the Hermes, the son of Zeus.  It is said that he was a great peacemaker and the caduceus was created when he separated two fighting snakes with his staff.  The serpents entwined as a show of friendship. 

The Hippocratic Oath, the one all medical students pledge as they graduate from medical school mentions Apollo, Asclepius, Hygea, and Panacea, but makes no reference at all to Hermes.  Many of the veterinarians and dentists have begun using the single serpent medical symbol.  However, the physicians of this country continue to use the double serpent staff as a medical symbol. 

If this was indeed a mistake to use the medical symbols inappropriately, it may be attributed to the English publisher of a medical textbook.  He used the two serpent caduceus as the printer’s mark on the title page of medical textbooks headed to the United States.  To further the use of the caduceus, the U.S. Army Medical Corps used it as its medical symbol in 1902.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter which of the medical symbols is used as long as the doctors using is remember the Hippocratic Oath and take their profession seriously.

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