Caduceus vs. Rod of Asclepius

When you want an icon that refers to medicine, use the rod with one snake, called the Rod of Asclepius. For commerce (and some other things, see below) use the winged staff with two snakes, called the Caduceus. These two symbols have very different meanings!

Rod of Asclepius, Medicine

The Rod of Asclepius (displayed to the left) is the symbol for the Greco-Roman god Asclepius, known for his connection with medicine. It is a rod with one snake. The symbol is used today to represent the medical profession. You can commonly find this symbol on ambulances and everywhere medical symbols or logos are needed.

Caduceus, Commerce

The Caduceus (displayed to the right) is the symbol for the Greco-Roman god Hermes. It is a staff with two snakes and wings. Hermes is known for being a messenger of the gods, protector of merchants, guide to the dead, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves. The Caduceus is generally used today as a symbol of commerce.

Why is there confusion in the U.S.?
In 1902 the US Army Medical Corp chose the Caduceus as their insignia. Most scholars regard this as a flat-out mistake. The US Army writes that the Caduceus represents “the non-combatant status of military medicine on the battlefield”, which is to say they fully admit they are not using it as a medical symbol. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “Among the ancient Greeks and Romans [the Caduceus] became the badge of heralds and ambassadors, signifying their inviolability.” So maybe the US Army was thinking the symbol would convey a sense of “… Hey, hey, hey, don’t kill me, I’m just a messenger delivering the wounded to the hospital!” or some such. That is quite a stretch; I think somebody just used the wrong symbol. Today, military ambulances use the red cross and and civilian ambulances use the Star of Life, which prominently features, you guessed it, the Rod of Asclepius.

So why shouldn’t a medical provider use the Caduceus? Oh, let me count the ways! Being the symbol of Hermes, at best, it implies the medical professional is either selling or delivering something. It goes downhill from there; it may imply the medical provider will kill you (Hermes is the guide to the dead!), feed you to the dogs (shepherds!), hock your jewelry (gamblers!), and tell your mom they haven’t seen you in a week (liars and thieves!). So it is not a reassuring medical symbol! If you are a medical provider, please do not use the Caduceus!

 

 

Academic research on the subject is very clear. The Caduceus is not a medical symbol, the Rod of Asclepius is. The best research can be found in the 1992 book The Golden Wand of Medicine – A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine by Walter J. Friedlander. He spends 181 pages meticulously reviewing the history of the two symbols from their origins to the present day. It is very well researched, with lengthy bibliographies. He nails down with all the certainty that can be mustered by the best academician that the Caduceus is the wrong symbol to represent medicine. Read the final sentences of the book read (bold is mine):

It seems most likely that the caduceus became associated with medicine because of two errors: confusion of Traditional Hermes with other Hermes, and lack of recognizing or knowing the difference between two distinct serpentine objects, Traditional Hermes’ caduceus and Aesculapius’ staff. The result is that present day medicine, particularly in the United States, often shares the same symbol with merchants and commerce. Although, unfortunately, many lay people may think this is appropriate, it seems unlikely that most medical people, if they understood the underlying meaning of this object, would find it suitable. – page 158

Here are some scans I took of the first page and the concluding pages of The Golden Wand of Medicine.

 

There are a plethora of other resources I welcome you to explore. They all say the same thing. “Please use the rod of Asclepius as the medical symbol”. Here’s a few articles from highly regarded sources to get you started:

 

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Here is the full text from the US Army Medical Department Office of Medical History Frequently Asked Questions page, retrieved 10-31-20: (bold is mine)

Why does the Army Medical Department use the Caduceus, which represents the Greek god Hermes and the Roman god Mercury, instead of the Staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing?
The Army Medical Department uses both the Caduceus (Mercury’s/Hermes’ Staff) and the Staff of Asclepius as symbols for the Army Medical Department (AMEDD). The Staff of Asclepius, or Aesculapius, symbolizes the medical mission of the AMEDD, and is included on the AMEDD Regimental Crest (the staff with one snake entwined around it). The Caduceus, two snakes around a winged staff, symbolizes the non-combatant role of the AMEDD. The Caduceus was first used on enlisted men’s uniforms in 1851, over a decade before the establishment of the Red Cross as a symbol of non-combatants. In 1902 the Caduceus was chosen to replace the Maltese Cross insignia on Medical Corps officers’ collars. In 1907, the Army Nurse Corps – the only other officer corps in the AMEDD at that time – began wearing a Caduceus with the letters ANC superimposed over it. Since that time, all new officer corps have been represented by a Caduceus specific to their corps, worn on the collars of their officers. After the First World War, many medical professionals left the army and returned to civilian practice. When they did, they took with them the Caducei they had worn proudly as members of the Army Medical Department. Over time, the Caduceus became associated with medicine in America, even in medical practices that had no association with the Army. Originally, though, the Caduceus did not stand for medicine, but represented the non-combatant status of military medicine on the battlefield.

 

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Notes:

“Asclepius” is sometimes spelled Asclepios or Aesculapius.

The Rod of Asclepius image above was created by David Khai, distributed by The Noun Project. The fine folks at the Noun Project were a great help when I brought this issue to them, fixing hundreds of their catalog listings appropriately! Thank you!

 

8 Comments

  1. Lee says:

    The Google Search for “medical symbol” prominently shows the wrong symbol. Similar Google Image searches also do. This is especially irksome since, while the page shows lots of Caduceuses every reference talks about why the Caduceus is the wrong symbol!

    I sent Google feedback:

    The “medical symbol” is the Rod of Asclepius (one snake on a rod), not the Caduceus (two snakes on winged staff). All of the google search links mention that there is often confusion but point out the truth.

    Hopefully they’ll find a fix

  2. Lee says:

    I wrote to the NounProject (a huge repository of icons)

    Dearest Nounproject,

    I hope this is helpful. I read on your site that your mission is to build a global visual language. It would be great if you could correct this issue for the betterment of all.
    There are two icons that are often mislabeled on your site.

    – The Caduceus is a winged staff with 2 snakes. It is the symbol of the god Hermes. Your Caduceus page has a few rods of Asclepius on it.
    – The rod of Asclepius is a rod with 1 snake. It is the symbol of the god Asclepius. Fully 1/2 of the icons on your Rod of Asclepius page are actually Caduceuses. 

    Along with that, icons like this one are no good at all. This one has the Caduceus in front of the Star of Life, which is nonsensical.
    Here’s more details about the difference between these two icons.  

    Is there any way I can help sort your icons correctly?

  3. Lee says:

    I’m in communication with Erika at the Noun Project! We are fixing all of their erroneous submissions! I’m over the moon about this! They had some 200 mislabeled icons.

    I submitted fixes for all of these tags and Erika at Noun Project committed them :-)
    https://thenounproject.com/search/?q=Asclepius
    Aesculapius
    Caduceus

    Bowl+of+Hygieia
    Star+of+Life
    pharmacy
    medical sign
    medical symbol

    I also made a Wikipedia update, noting the correct place for the caduceus.

  4. Lee says:

    In this NPR article titled, Can You Guess The Meaning Of These Humanitarian Icons? they talk about how, in 2018, the iconographers at UNOCHA, part of the United Nations, “released a redesigned set of 295 icons… The 2012 iconography depicted the wrong snake in a symbol for health, for example. “We erroneously used the ‘Caduceus,’ a symbol of commerce, instead of the ‘Rod of Asclepius,’ the actual symbol of medicine,” says Paolo Palmero, an information management officer at the U.N. who helped work on the project.”

  5. Lee says:

    A win! After writing to the folks at http://www.publicconsultinggroup.com, they fixed some iconography on their website. They had been using the Caduceus as a medical symbol. :-)

  6. Lee Sonko says:

    Sent a letter to Crest Toothpaste today via https://crest.com/en-us/contact-us

    I would very much appreciate a response from a brand manager regarding my inquiry. Thank you in advance!

    I see that in Crest’s online marketing and packaging, you use a symbol with 2 snakes and wings wrapped around a staff as a “medical” symbol. This symbol is called The Caduceus. Please understand that this is the wrong symbol and is rather denigrating to your brand! I highly recommend you instead use the symbol with 1 snake and no wings around a staff, called The Rod of Asclepius.

    Here are some instances of Crest using the Caduceus
    In online marketing:
    https://crest.com/en-us/products/toothpaste/crest-gum-detoxify-deep-clean-toothpaste

    On the package:
    https://crest.com/en-us/products/toothpaste/crest-pro-health-hd-toothpaste
    https://crest.com/en-us/products/crest-sensitivity-whitening-plus-scope-toothpaste
    https://crest.com/en-us/products/toothpaste/sensitivity
    https://crest.com/en-us/products/toothpaste/crest-pro-health-sensitive-and-enamel-shield

    The Caduceus is the ancient symbol of the Greek god Hermes. Hermes is known for being a messenger of the gods, guide to the dead, and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves. The Caduceus is generally used today as a symbol of commerce.

    The Rod of Asclepius is named after the Greek god Asclepius, the god of medicine. The symbol is used today as a symbol for the medical profession.

    There is confusion in the United States because in 1902 the Army Medical Corps chose the Caduceus as their insignia, maybe because the corp were “messengers” delivering wounded soldiers, or possibly because they just chose the wrong symbol. When medical professionals returned from World War One, they brought the symbol back to their practices and misattribution spread to the civilian medical profession.

    In brief, for anyone who doesn’t know the difference between the two symbols, it hardly matters. But for those that understand the the symbols, using the Caduceus is a negative mark on your brand. At best it signifies that you are selling toothpaste. At worst, well, Hermes is the “patron saint” of messengers, the dead, merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves! Putting the Caduceus on your product leads to only nonsense and negative connotations.

    The cost to switching is very small. I hope that over time you switch to using the correct symbol.

    I understand that marketing is regional but it may help to point out that Proctor & Gamble’s entire Blend-a-Med toothpaste line prominently features the Rod of Asclepius on the label.

    Don’t trust me on this matter, read up on the subject. Here are some good places to start:
    – Google “Caduceus Rod of Asclepius”
    – Wikipedia’s article “Caduceus as a symbol of medicine”
    – My own blog post “Caduceus vs. Rod of Asclepius” https://www.lee.org/blog/2016/06/15/caduceus-vs-rod-of-asclepius/

    Again, I would very much appreciate a response from a brand manager regarding my inquiry.

    Thank you very much for your time,
    Lee Sonko

    P&G ref#:15771655

  7. Lee says:

    I’m reaching out to the authors of sites where the image of the Caduceus is misinterpreted as the Rod of Asclepius. First up is Firstclassmed. A Caduceus on this page is (incorrectly) the #1 image for “medical symbol” on Google.

  8. Lee says:

    Letter to Jotform.com:

    I see that Jotform uses the wrong medical symbol in many places. For example, on your HIPAA Homepage and on the Patient Surveys that I receive from my ophthalmologist, West Coast Retina. This is a problem that erodes confidence in your brand!

    The symbol I see on those pages is a staff with wings and two snakes coiled around it. That symbol is called the Caduceus and it is the symbol for the Greek god Hermes; it is used today as a symbol of commerce and messengers, and a few other purposes including shepherds, the dead, liars, gamblers, and thieves.

    Instead, you almost definitely should be using a symbol with one snake wrapped around a rod, known as the Rod of Asclepius. Asclepius is a Greek god of medicine and the symbol is known today as representing medicine.

    Here is a pointer to a website that can direct you to many resources verifying my claim. https://www.lee.org/blog/2016/06/15/caduceus-vs-rod-of-asclepius/

    I would love to get a response, saying you’re looking into the matter. I’m sure that making this small iconographic change will be beneficial to your brand!

    Best regards,

    Lee Sonko

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