Snake Logo Bites Medical Professionals

by Amber N. Yoo, M.B.A.


Caduceus

We’re all familiar with the “medical caduceus” – the symbol of two serpents wrapped around a winged staff. We see it everywhere – on ambulances, in medical offices, and on medical-related websites. Would you be surprised to know that America’s got it wrong? That’s right. Starting with the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1902, American medical professionals have been erroneously using the Caduceus (pronounced “kah-DOO-shuss”) to symbolize health and healing.

In truth, the Caduceus is the ancient symbol of commerce, carried by the Greek god Hermes, the patron of merchants. Unfortunately for the American medical profession, Hermes was also the patron of thieves, known for his cunning and trickery. Even worse, it was Hermes who guided the souls of the dead to the underworld. Not exactly what we associate with health and healing!

Rod of Asclepius

The authentic symbol of medicine is the rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and the patron of physicians. Asclepius was a “major focus of ancient Greco-Roman medical tradition.” Early medical complexes were called Asclepieions and could be found throughout the Roman Empire. Many early Greek physicians, including Hippocrates, claimed to be related to Asclepius, referring to themselves as Asclepiades. In fact, The Hippocratic Oath opens by calling on Asclepius and his family as witnesses.    

The association of the Caduceus with medicine has its origins in alchemy. In the 7th century, Egyptian alchemists used the Caduceus to symbolize their craft, probably because of Hermes’ association with magic. By the end of the 16th century, the discipline of alchemy had grown to include pharmaceuticals and chemistry, thereby gaining greater acceptance in the medical field.

Still, to say that alchemy (and therefore the Caduceus) represented the medical field is a stretch. It’s widely believed that the use of the Caduceus as a printer’s mark in the 16th and 17th century is what caused the Caduceus to be erroneously thought of as the “official” symbol of medicine. Printers used the Caduceus because Hermes was also the messenger of the gods and the printers likened themselves to messengers of the printed word. It’s thought that people saw the Caduceus on printed medical texts and drew the wrong conclusion.

U.S. Medical Corps logo with Caduceus

The clincher came in 1902 when the U.S. Army Medical Corps adopted the Caduceus in its official logo. It is possible that the Corps never intended for the icon to represent the practice of medicine. Nevertheless, the incorrect association became pervasive both within the medical field and among the public.

UM Medical School seal with rod of Asclepius

Today, most medical heavyweights use the correct emblem, the rod of Asclepius, including the associations and training centers Dr. Yoo is affiliated with: American Medical Association, the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Stanford School of Medicine, and University of Michigan Medical School.

I hope you enjoyed this fun bit of medical trivia! Now that you’re “in the know,” I bet you’ll start noticing the two symbols everywhere.