With the new stylized AMA logo debuting this week, we got a little nostalgic, and curious about the familiar old serpent-and-staff. Indeed, we’ve discovered there’s apparently some controversy and misinformation out there regarding the issue: one snake or two?
The issue is well summarized at Dr. Blayley’s website (including a nice collection of medical logos from around the world):
Professional and patient centred organisations … use the “correct” and traditional symbol of medicine, the staff of Asclepius with a single serpent encircling a staff, classically a rough-hewn knotty tree limb. Asclepius (an ancient Greek physician deified as the god of medicine) is traditionally depicted as a bearded man wearing a robe that leaves his chest uncovered and holding a staff with his sacred single serpent coiled around it, symbolizing renewal of youth as the serpent casts off its skin. The single serpent staff also appears on a Sumerian vase of c. 2000 B.C. representing the healing god Ningishita, the prototype of the Greek Asklepios.
So what about the two serpents, and the winged staff (also called a caduceus)? This apparently arises from Hermes, the messenger of the gods:
The link between Hermes and his caduceus and medicine seems to have arisen by Hermes links with alchemy. Alchemists were referred to as the sons of Hermes, as Hermetists or Hermeticists and as “practitioners of the hermetic arts”. By the end of the sixteenth century, the study of alchemy included not only medicine and pharmaceuticals but chemistry, mining and metallurgy. Despite learned opinion that it is the single snake staff of Asclepius that is the proper symbol of medicine, many medical groups have adopted the twin serpent caduceus of Hermes or Mercury as a medical symbol during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Like the staff of Asclepius, the caduceus became associated with medicine through its use as a printer’s mark, as printers saw themselves as messengers of the printed word and diffusers of knowledge (hence the choice of the symbol of the messenger of the ancient gods). A major reason for the current popularity of the caduceus as a medical symbol was its official adoption as the insignia for the Medical Department of the United States Army in 1902.
The caduceus retains significance in the occult and mysticism, and we suspect medical historians scoff at those who use it to incorrectly represent medicine.
So what does the staff of Asclepius symbolize? Dr. Blayley speculates the image’s origin might arise from the practice of removing subcutaneous parasites. The worms would be pulled from an incision and wound around a stick — the practice was so common that doctors may have come to advertise their services by depicting this procedure.
Other interpretations of the serpert’s significance are listed in today’s Chicago Sun-Times:
— A snake could inoculate patients with nonlethal doses of venom.
— The serpent represents the forces of life and death, just as a physician stands between healing and destruction.
— The snake’s ability to shed its skin represents a triumph over aging.
Future historians will no doubt speculate that the stick represents upright physicians, and the coiled snake symbolizes managed care, or maybe malpractice premiums.
And on that note, we’re signing off for the week. Enjoy your weekend, and try not to contract any parasites!