Both symbols feature snakes winding up the length of a central staff, though one has two snakes, and usually a set of wings, while the other has only one snake. Could you tell them apart? Though often used interchangeably, these two symbols have very different meanings. The caduceus, the staff of the messenger god Hermes, has been wrongly used as a medical symbol for a little over one hundred years. It has often been mistaken for the Rod of Asclepius, a visually similar symbol belonging to the god of healing and medicine.
The fact that this mixup has lasted for so long is strange and, at times, ironic, given what mythology teaches us about Hermes and his iconography, which can be spotted throughout art history, starting in Ancient Greece. As the messenger god, Hermes also came to be known as a patron of negotiation, trade, and commerce. As Hermes’ trusty staff, the caduceus came to take on the same symbolic resonances as the god himself. For example, the staff can be seen printed on Roman coins dating back to the 1st Century.
The symbol experienced a particular uptick in use during the Neoclassical period of the 18th Century. In Rousselet’s series, “Les Arts Liberaux,” the allegorical figure in Rhetoric holds the caduceus, levying its associations with negotiation and communication. The artist is likely also intentionally playing on the god’s patronage of deceivers and even thieves, as a nod to the sly persuasiveness often associated with rhetorical practice.
The first documented instance of a caduceus being misused as a medical symbol occurred in the 1850s, when it was applied to the chevrons of U.S. Army hospital stewards. By 1902, it had been added to the uniforms of U.S. Army medical officers. After World War I, the Navy also began to use the symbol in its Hospital Corps. For a time, even the American Medical Association used the symbol.
Eventually, many of these larger organizations changed or modified their emblems to remove the caduceus but misuse continues to run rampant across the US and in smaller institutions. A survey published in 1992 revealed that across a sampling of U.S. hospitals, professional, and commercial medical associations, about 41% use the Rod of Asclepius while 59% still feature the caduceus. The survey also found that commercial institutions were most likely to use the caduceus, at a rate of 76%.
This may be simply due to the fact that these companies are most concerned with what will be most recognizable to the general public. It is not unusual for images, like words, to evolve over time and come to mean something entirely different. And yet, when one realizes that the United States Surgeon General’s flag and the symbol of the U.S. Public Health Service both still feature the caduceus, the irony is hard to ignore. Especially in a country so divided by the politics of healthcare, something its people are being forced to reckon with now more than ever.