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History of Medicine |

The Symbol of Modern Medicine: Why One Snake Is More Than Two*

Robert A. Wilcox, BMBS, BSc(Hons), PhD; and Emma M. Whitham, MBBS, BSc(Hons), PhD
[+] Article, Author, and Disclosure Information

From Flinders Medical Centre, Bedford Park, South Australia, Australia.

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.

Ann Intern Med. 2003;138(8):673-677. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-138-8-200304150-00016
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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.


Grahic Jump Location
Figure 1.
Statues of Asklepios and Hygieia.

Beginning in the 17th century, many western medical schools and hospitals incorporated the representations of Asklepios, Hygieia, and the Asklepian into their symbols and artistic decorations. These statues are prominently displayed at Guys Hospital in London, United Kingdom, opposite the old surgical theater.

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Figure 2.
Symbols of the U.S. Army Medical Corps (USAMC). Top.Bottom.(21, 22)https:/www.perscom.army.mil/tagd/tioh/Branches/Army%20Medical%20Department.htm http://ameddregiment.amedd.army.mil/flag.htm

The golden caduceus collar badge of the USAMC, which was adopted in 1902. The regimental insignia of the U.S. Army Medical Department (USAMEDD), which is worn by all personnel in each of its seven corps, including the USAMC. The design of the shield, with its 20 stars, 13 stripes, and green Asklepian, is derived from the original coat of arms adopted by the USAMEDD in 1818 . The shield motif also remains central to the modern regimental coat of arms and flag of the USAMEDD (see USAMEDD regimental symbols and history at and ). Reproduced with permission of the USAMEDD and the U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry.

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Figure 3.
Mercury about to take off to fly around the world.(34)

With a full purse and winged caduceus, Mercury flies around the world, leaving behind his companion, Fortuna, the goddess of good luck .

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Grahic Jump Location
Figure 4.
Hermes Psychopompos, god of ghosts and the underworld.(36)

This drawing on an ancient vase shows Hermes with the magic rhabdos (rod) and a wingless kerykeion (caduceus) summoning the souls of the dead from the great grave pithos .

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