Medical symbols adorn much of my equipment, and it was one on a replacement oxygen tube that caught my attention the other day. How many people know what it means? I didn’t know the origin of it until researching for the Apostle John Series.
The first book in the series, Hold the Faith is where some of that research was used.
Origin of the medical symbol
What is often called the ‘Staff of Asclepius’ is the ‘Staff of Hermes’ – more about that later. But an easy way to tell the difference is wings and snakes. If it has wings and two snakes, it is Hermes, not Asclepius,
The staff, or rod, of Asclepius was the symbol of the serpent god Asclepius, and was mentioned in Hold the Faith. (Book 1 in the Apostle John Series.)
Excerpt from Hold the Faith
“Polycarp poured some wine into a small metal cup and encouraged Thanos to drink.
When he did start to speak, Thanos said bitterly, “It was because of those pagan priests of Asclepius and their healing school.”
“Do they still only allow those they think will live to enter their asklepieion?” John asked.
Nodding, Thanos replied, “Yes, they still have that sign saying that death is not welcome there.” He choked on a sob, then continued, “And we have heard tales that those who are accepted for healing are given a drink that makes them sleep and dream. The dormitory where they spend the night is full of snakes, non-poisonous ones,” he added. “When the people wake they tell their dreams to the priests who interpret their dreams and make them treatments. The people seeking healing make clay images of the body parts they want healed.”
Benjamin shuddered, “Why put people where snakes crawl around them all night?”
“The priests tell them that the snakes carry the healing power of the serpent god Asclepius. If one slithers over the person during the night, he is told it is a sign of divine favour, and that he will be healed.” Stopping, Thanos took a sip of the wine and let out a shuddering sigh.”
First Medical Symbol
The original had one snake, (as mentioned before and shown in the featured image), so how come the modern medical symbol has two snakes around the rod?
“It seems the mix up didn’t take place until the 20th century. In 1902 the US Army Medical Corp adopted the caduceus as their symbol. The reason isn’t clear as the American Medical Association, Royal Army Medical Corp and the French Military Service all would happily adopt the staff of Asclepius. This decision to choose the caduceus has been credited either to a Captain Frederick P. Reynolds or a Colonel Hoff. The Americans Public Health Service and US Marine Hospital would also take Hermes’s symbol as their own.”
Further in the article it states “This confusion seems to be uniquely American and driven by commercialisation.”
It is interesting what researching for a novel will turn up.
Particularly in the US, the one commonly used as the medical symbol is the caduceus, the staff of Hermes.
Further reading: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4439707/