Symbols of Medicine


By Owoeye Williams

“To live in a world without becoming aware of the meaning of the world is like wandering about a great library without touching the books” – Dan Brown

Symbols are not just ordinary images created for aesthetics reasons; for every symbol created, there is always history and information attached to it and to live in a society with all these symbols without at least an attempt to understand their meaning is nearly the same as navigating the streets blindfolded. If you are not yet convinced of this maxim, think about using WhatsApp without understanding the meaning of each emojis embedded in the popular messaging app, what struck your mind? Shear ignorance and confusion. Since the time man had developed the ability to put carvings on walls, symbols have always been a means to express his innermost feelings especially in situations where words are luxury he could not afford. From carvings of the cavemen to Egyptian hieroglyphics, they are effective ways of communication and identification.

Symbolism has also been influential in the medical field as a unique logo can be seen on all things related to medicine – a snake and a rod (or its varieties). This might look ironical on the surface as the appearance of a snake normally leaves an impression of danger on the human mind and one might question why the ‘dangerous’ snake was chosen to represent the concept of healing. But digging deeper to the origin of this symbol and the history surrounding it will reveal the true interpretation. It is imperative to note that not all snakes are venomous or dangerous, there are snakes that are totally harmless, one of such is the Aesculapian snakes. It is a specie of snake that was adopted in ancient Egypt for healing rituals in reverence to Asclepius – the Greek god of healing; these snakes were allowed to slither freely near patients as they were believed to bring healing to them. Other characteristics that made the snake the chosen object for the symbol of medicine include: its ability to shed its old skin to unravel a new one which was associated with rebirth and renewal, medicinal importance of its venom, skin and other parts and the way the snake can switch from a state of being lethargic to a very active state when the need arises was linked to recuperation. Another place where the snake and the rod were used is in the bible where Moses was instructed to raise a statue of a bronze snake in the wilderness to stop the ordeals of the Israelites. This act is also suspected to have a link to Egypt as it was not repeated in the Hebrew culture.

The keen in sight would have however noticed that there exist two popular version of this symbol; one has a rod bearing two wings with two snakes coiled around it (the Caduceus), the other is less flamboyant – it has no wings and only one snake (Asclepios). Going back to the origins of the two symbols however, one will see that the two symbols are in no way synonymous. The Asclepios is the rod belonging to the Greek god of healing who in the mythology also had the power of bringing back the dead - this is the genuine symbol of medicine. The other is the Caduceus which is the rod belonging to the Greek god Hermes who according to mythology was a messenger (with wings on his shoes) from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. He is also the protector of travelers, outlaws, merchants, gamblers and liars. From these, it can be seen that the two symbols have nothing in common in terms of origin but the confusion arose from the decision made by the Surgeon General of the United States to use the Caduceus as the emblem of Maritime Hospital Service which later became the U.S. Public Health Service either due to aesthetic reason or because of its relationship with merchant seamen and maritime industry, and somehow owing to the fact that they are a world power, the idea proliferated to other parts of the world. Another factor that must have facilitated the spread of this confusion in Nigeria is the fact that most textbooks like Keith Moore Anatomy read by medical students are published in the United States and the symbol that is imprinted on these textbooks is the misleading caduceus. So, we have the influence of the Great Britain on one hand passing onto us the authentic symbol – the Asclepios, while the confusing symbol infiltrated from the U.S. this has led to a situation where the symbols are used interchangeably. However, some medical organizations never compromised in the usage of the right symbol, an example is the Nigerian Medical Association. 

The situation of things is also not helped by the ignorance of artists that get contracted to make medical posters, signposts and banners. Most of them just look at the two symbols and pick the ones that is most appealing to them aesthetically. One thing we all need to know however, is that ancient symbols like this are like idiomatic expressions; a part of their structure cannot be substituted for another and one may not be able to see the logic embedded in them on the surface but that doesn’t make them illogical, moreover one needs an inept knowledge of their origin before one can modify them (most times they don’t even need to be modified at all) 

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