Legend of Caduceus

Greek God Hermes – The Printer’s Mark

The origin of the word, Caduceus, comes from the Greek quote Kerykeion, which means “herald’s staff.” It was associated with the Greek god, Hermes, the messenger for the gods, who carried a winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it.

Over the years this symbol was adopted by printers, representing themselves as messengers of the printed word. In the 1800s a certain printer, John Churchill of London, used this symbol on the title page of the many medical textbooks he exported to the United States.

The current popularity of the winged, two snaked staff within the medical community is due to an honest mistake committed by U.S. Captain Franklin Reynolds, who misunderstood the relationship between the printer’s mark and medical practice. In 1902 he convinced the Surgeon General of the United States to use the staff of Hermes as the official insignia for the Medical Department of the United States Army.

The rest is history.

Staff of Asclepius

The current accepted symbol for medicine, which has been used for centuries in other countries, is the Staff of Asclepius, a stick with one snake wrapped around. Asclepius was the most skilled physician in Greece around 1200 B.C.

Through myth and legend he came to be viewed as a mortal hero – a physician, and eventually deified as a Greco Roman god of healing. In Greek lore Asclepius is the son of Apollo, whose healing power he inherited and expanded. Apollo, Asclepius and Asclepius’ daughters, Hygeia (hygiene) and Panacea (healing) are all mentioned in the original Hypocratic Oath.

Snake on a Stick

During ancient times infection by parasitic worms was common. A filarial worm known as “the fiery serpent” would crawl around the victim’s body, just under the skin. Physicians, such as the historic Asclepius, treated this infection by cutting a slit in the patient’s skin just in front of the worm’s path. As the worm crawled out the opening the physician carefully wound the pest around a rod, ending up with a snake on a stick.

The Bronzed Snake

“They traveled along the route to the Red Sea, but the people grew inpatient on the way; they spoke against God and said, ‘Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water!,

“Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronzed snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronzed snake, he lived.”

Numbers 21: XX

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