Over the ages man has privileged some animals over others. Tigers, lions and bears (oh my!) have all enjoyed a largely uninterrupted run of respect, while hamsters, aardvarks and gerbils remain unrecognized.
Then there’s the snake, who has a PR record varied enough to make 50 Cent turn green with envy. Once a symbol of fertility and everlasting life, in today’s Western world the snake has come to represent evil, sin and deception; everything from the Bible to the latest Harry Potter movie depicts the snake in an unflattering light. So what’s it doing on the emblem of our country’s Army Medical Corps?
The winged staff encircled by two serpents, known as the caduceus, comes to us from the Greek god Hermes, son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. Inventive and cunning from birth, Hermes served as a messenger of the gods, donning a winged helmet and winged shoes to deliver missives to mortals. A stylish accessory to this outfit was his “herald’s wand” (caduceus), a gift from Apollo. The wand went with him while he served as a communiqué, and also helped him work his second job as a guide of the deceased to the underworld. As the one of the only gods that was welcome both in Hades and Olympus, Hermes wasn’t one to take boundaries too seriously, and came to be known as the protector of travelers, merchants, vagabonds and prostitutes. He also was patron of dreams and science.
There’s no evidence that the caduceus was used as a medical symbol in antiquity, and its journey to the US Army Medical Corps is somewhat blurry. Some believe that Johannes Froben (1460-1527), a Swiss printer, got the caduceus’s foot in the door by printing the symbol at the beginning of his medical volumes, probably to emphasize the communicative nature of his books.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the US Navy Hospital services adopted the caduceus as its symbol, strengthening the caduceus’s association with medical services. In 1902 the US Army Medical Corps decided to use the caduceus as well and today the symbol is inextricably tied to medicine.
The caduceus is often confused with its brother, the Rod of Asclepius, which many people believe to be more representative of the medical profession. Since Hermes was the patron of what some would call dubious people, critics say that the caduceus represents values antithetical to the art of healing. Proponents of the emblem argue that the caduceus is more aesthetically pleasing than the Rod of Asclepius, and consider its “double symbolism (illness and therapy, sin and redemption)” thought-provoking (Antoniou).
And that’s how the caduceus came to be.
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Antoniou, Stavros A. “The Rod and the Serpent: History’s Ultimate Healing Symbol.” World Journal of Surgery. (2011): 217-221. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.
de la Garza-Villasenor, Lorenzo. “Origin of three symbols in medicine and surgery.” Cirugia y Cirujanos. (2009): n. page. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.