The healing professions have symbols, insignias that can be worn on uniforms or as logos on signs. Probably the most widely used symbol of all the healing arts is the caduceus, the familiar staff, commonly entwined by one or two snakes, and which originated with the Greek gods Asclepius and Hermes.
This symbol, which dates back to ancient times, today is seen everywhere. The American Medical Association uses it. And in the United States Armed Forces, it is the base of the insignia for all health professions. Physicians wear a plain caduceus, nurses a caduceus with the letter N, dentists with a D, and veterinarians with a V. In fact, the caduceus is now the most widely used symbol of medicine in the United States. The Canadian Medical Association,New Zealand Medical Association, and World Health Organization all display the staff. The World Medical Association uses a modernized version of the staff. Even the animal docs are in on the act: The American Veterinary Medical Association uses the staff, overlaid with the letter V, while the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association places their staff inside the V.
Getting Creative with the Caduceus
Dentists, in their private practices, seem to use the caduceus most often, but the official symbol of dentistry is a variation on the staff of Asclepius. In the dental design, the snake is curled around, not a stick, but an ancient Arabian cautery. This symbol is surrounded by a triangle – actually the Greek letter delta – Δ – representing the initial letter D in the word dentistry.
Chiropractic has a unique – and relatively recent – variation on the caduceus: A winged man, with arms outspread, whose modesty is concealed by a sash or ribbon that curls around him like a snake. Chiropractic dates from 1895, and the winged man, or chiropractic angel, was first used around 1928, with the emblem formally adopted by the National Chiropractic Association in 1934.
The Rx symbol, which traditionally has been part of a prescription and so written by physicians, has been adopted as a symbol of pharmacy. There are several interpretations of the origin of this symbol, and it’s not clear which one is correct. One version is that it was the symbol of Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods. But while the symbol bears some resemblance to the symbol for Jupiter, neither Jupiter nor his Grecian equivalent, Zeus, had a major role in the healing arts. William Osler, writing in 1910, may have an explanation: It’s not the god Jupiter, but the planet. He wrote, “In a cursive form it is found in mediaeval translations of the works of Ptolemy the astrologer, as the sign of the planet Jupiter. As such it was placed upon horoscopes and upon formula containing drugs made for administration to the body, so that the harmful properties of these drugs might be removed under the influence of the lucky planet.”
A second interpretation is that Rx is an abbreviation for the Latin recipere for “take thou,” used before listing the ingredients of the prescription. Finally, the most intriguing interpretation is that the symbol was derived from the Egyptian Eye of Horus. Horus lost his eye in a battle with the god Seth, but the eye magically regrew, and so became a symbol of renewed health.
Pharmacists & Nurses
One of Asclepius’ children was a daughter named Hygieia, whose name survives today in our word “hygiene.” But there’s more to Hygieia than a name: The Bowl (or Cup) of Hygieia, a wineglass with a snake coiled around it, has become the symbol of both theAmerican Pharmacists Association and the Canadian Pharmacists Association. The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia uses a version of the cup of Hygieia, in which the cup is bordered by two snakes, which roughly describe the shape of a caduceus. TheInternational Pharmaceutical Federation managed to devise a logo that represents the Bowl of Hygieia composed of the letters FIP.
Although the profession of nursing is as ancient as medicine, and may have the greatest right to the Cup of Hygieia as its symbol, most of the nursing societies in English-speaking nations use a lamp or candle, which is not only in memory of Florence Nightingale, but which represents the light of knowledge. The International Council of Nurses (ICN) uses a version of the lamp as its own symbol, but in 1999 adopted a white heart as the international symbol for nursing. The ICN explains, “White was selected because it brings together all colours, demonstrating nursing’s acceptance of all people. White also has a world-wide association with nursing, caring, hygiene and comfort. The heart shape communicates humanity and the central place that nursing has in quality health care.”
Classic to Common to Canceled
Although these classic symbols have a traditional or official status, most professions have common symbols as well, although many of them have become obsolete. Nursing is commonly represented by the nursing cap, although few nurses still wear them. Meanwhile pharmacy is frequently represented by the mortar and pestle, although today, these are most often used by cooks for crushing spices.
And medicine is often symbolized by the headband and parabolic mirror. This iconic combination was once almost universally worn by physicians as a way of focusing light into body cavities being examined. Now, they’re only seen on Halloween costumes.