In 1902 the US Army Medical Corp chose the Caduceus as their insignia. Most scholars regard this as a huge mistake. The US Army writes that the Caduceus represents “the non-combatant status of military medicine on the battlefield”. 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, don’t kill me, I’m just a messenger, delivering the wounded to the hospital…” or some such. That feels like a stretch to me, but hey, what do I know? More importantly, saying “I’m just a messenger” is, at best, nonsensical on a doctor’s scrubs!
The symbol on the left is the Caduceus, a rod with wings and two snakes wrapped around it. It is the symbol for the ancient Greek god Hermes. Hermes is known for being messenger of the gods, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves. The Caduceus is generally used today as a symbol of commerce.
The symbol on the right is the Rod of Asclepius is a rod with one snake wrapped around it. It is the symbol for the ancient Greek god Asclepius, known as a god of medicine. It is used today as a symbol for the medical profession.
These two symbols have very different meanings! If you are thinking “medicine”, don’t use the winged-double-snake!!! If you have a medically oriented organization, please don’t embarrass yourself. Make sure that your rod has one snake and no wings!
There are many articles where historians and professionals delve into this issue. Almost all of them say the US Medical Corps are using the wrong symbol. Here’s a few to get you started:
- Finn, R., Orlans,D. A., Davenport, G. (1999). A much misunderstood caduceus and the case for an aesculapion. The Lancet, 353 (9168), 1978. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(05)77199-3
- Wilcox, R. A., & Whitham, E. M. (2003). The Symbol of Modern Medicine: Why One Snake Is More Than Two. Annals Of Internal Medicine, 138(8), 673. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12693891
- Things you don’t learn in medical school: Caduceus http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4439707/
- Wikipedia has a trove of well referenced info about the subject: Caduceus as a symbol of medicine, Caduceus, Rod of Asclepius