As I stand on the verge of turning 30, in many ways, there is still a 3-year-old child in my head obsessed with one question: "Why?" That question is why I studied psychology in college, why I love the challenges and mysteries of an ever-evolving marketing career, and why I have an undying love and fascination for history - our past is the answer to so many present day queries of "Why?"
Recently we posted a picture of a 'Dental Caduceus' created by our talented embroidery team, and an enlightened Facebook Fan informed us that it wasn't a Caduceus, but rather a Rod of Asclepius. The discovery caught me by surprise, as the ADA uses the term Caduceus. A little research revealed a widespread and common confusion between the two symbols, leading some websites to claim that they were interchangeable despite having two very different historical meanings - naturally, I wanted to know why, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is more to the story than 'serpent plus staff equals medicine'.
Both symbols have their roots in Greek Mythology, but despite being treated as interchangeable, only one of them is historically accurate as a representation of medicine. The Caduceus, two snakes wound around a staff and often bearing wings, belonged to Hermes, the Greek messenger of the Gods. How he got it is a subject of debate - some sources claim that Apollo gave it to him as a sign of friendship, while others claim it came from a man who made it his mission in life to stop snakes from reproducing by hitting them with a stick (I'm not kidding).
Hermes (or Mercury as the Romans called him) was gifted with a wide variety of associations, from commerce and negotiation, to thievery and death (oops), to alchemy and printing. Its false application to medicine is believed to have originated from a combination of early medical texts bearing the 'printer's caduceus' and the quest of alchemists everywhere (in addition to turning everything into gold) to find a 'panacea' - a cure for all diseases and the secret to immortality.
The mistake was further cemented in North America in 1902, when the US Army medical corps adopted the Caduceus at the insistence of a single officer. A widely viewed symbol, it could be called the first domino in the rapid succession of symbolic confusion throughout the United States.
So what of the Rod of Asclepius, the rightful king of medical symbols? This symbol has an equally fascinating story as well. The rod, a single snake wound around a staff, belonged to Asclepius, the Greek God of medicine and healing. Asclepius, the son of Apollo, had several daughters, including Hygieia ("Hygiene"), Iaso ("Medicine"), Aceso ("Healing"), Aglaea ("Healthy Glow"), and Panacea ("Universal Remedy" - and yet another association to those alchemists and their caduceus). Consequently, Hippocrates was a worshipper of Asclepius, whose priests interpreted the dreams and visions of patients to prescribe an appropriate therapy, kept non-venomous snakes in their shrines and clinics, and used sacred dogs to lick the wounds of sick petitioners.
It's also been theorized that the symbol itself stems from a popular method of treating the infection of the parasitic guinea worm, also known as Dracunculus medinensis ("the fiery serpent" or "the dragon of Medina"). The worm, still a widespread problem in some parts of the world, infects a patient by means of contaminated drinking water and then spends a year beneath the skin as it matures and works its way down to the lower extremities - where it creates a wound and a burning sensation, depositing eggs into the water when the foot or leg is submerged to reduce discomfort.
To rid a patient of this parasite, doctors would cut a slit on the patient's skin just in front of the worm's path and then curl it around a stick (and yes, just typing this makes me squeamish). Slowly winding a few millimeters a day until the worm was removed, the process took weeks or even months, and is still a popular method of dealing with guinea worm infections. The illness was so universally common in the past that many doctors would advertise their skill by placing a sign of a worm on a stick on their clinics. Over time, and with the help of the Asclepian priests, the worm became a snake, representing fertility and rebirth due to its ability to shed its skin.
While many organizations have wrongly adopted the caduceus, most medical professionals have remained true to the Rod of Asclepius. In 1992, Walter Friendlander surveyed 242 logos of American organizations relating to health or medicine dating from the late 1970s to early 1980s. He found that 62% of healthcare professionals used the Rod of Asclepius, while 76% of commercial healthcare organizations used the Caduceus. The exception was hospitals, where only 37% used a Rod of Asclepius and 63% for the Caduceus. Friedlander theorized that healthcare professionals are more likely to have a real understanding of the two symbols, whereas commercial organizations are more likely to be concerned with the visual impact a symbol will have. I, for one, am grateful that we have such knowledgeable and insightful customers, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to explore the history of this common misconception.