Robert A. Wilcox, BMBS, BSc(Hons), PhD; Emma M. Whitham, MBBS, BSc(Hons), PhD
Acknowledgments: The authors thank Dr. W. Braund and Professor J. Ledingham for critically reviewing early versions of this paper.
Potential Financial Conflicts of Interest: None disclosed.
Requests for Single Reprints: Robert A. Wilcox, MD, Department of Medical Biochemistry, Flinders Medical Centre, Bedford Park, SA, 5042, Australia.
Current Author Addresses: Dr. Wilcox: Department of Medical Biochemistry, Flinders Medical Centre, Bedford Park, SA, 5042, Australia.
Dr. Whitham: Department of Neurology, Flinders Medical Centre, Bedford Park, SA, 5042, Australia.
Today, two serpent motifs are commonly used to symbolize the practice and profession of medicine. Internationally, the most popular symbol of medicine is the single serpententwined staff of Asklepios (Latin, Aesculapius), the ancient Greco-Roman god of medicine. However, in the United States, the staff of Asklepios (the Asklepian) and a double serpententwined staff with surmounting wings (the caduceus) are both popular medical symbols. The latter symbol is often designated as the medical caduceus and is equated with the ancient caduceus, the double serpententwined staff of the Greco-Roman god Hermes (Latin, Mercury). Many physicians would be surprised to learn that the medical caduceus has a quite modern origin: Its design is derived not from the ancient caduceus of Hermes but from the printer's mark of a popular 19th-century medical publisher. Furthermore, this modern caduceus became a popular medical symbol only after its adoption by the U.S. Army Medical Corps at the beginning of the 20th century. This paper describes the ancient origin of the Asklepian and how a misunderstanding of ancient mythology and iconography seems to have led to the inappropriate popularization of the modern caduceus as a medical symbol.
*In this paper, nomenclature of Greek origin is translated into English such that it more closely transliterates the original Greek spellings. Thus, for example, Asklepios, Hygieia, Hippokrates, and Epidavros are used rather than Asclepius, Hygeia, Hippocrates, and Epidaurus.
Statues of Asklepios and Hygieia.
Symbols of the U.S. Army Medical Corps (USAMC). Top.Bottom.
Mercury about to take off to fly around the world.
Hermes Psychopompos, god of ghosts and the underworld.
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Wilcox RA, Whitham EM. The Symbol of Modern Medicine: Why One Snake Is More Than Two*. Ann Intern Med. 2003;138:673–677. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-138-8-200304150-00016
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Published: Ann Intern Med. 2003;138(8):673-677.
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