By M Prakash and J. Carlton Johnny | Copyright : © Journal of Pharmacy and Bioallied Sciences
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It is a known fact that every symbol has a unique meaning. In that case what does this unique symbol, Caduceus, which is used, in various forms and modifications, by many medical organizations mean? Is it just a custom or does it have a deeper meaning? The story of this medical symbol started way back in 1400 BC, travelled through time, has undergone many changes, misconceptions and has finally reached the present state. Here we have tried to give you a glimpse of how it has evolved over time, what it actually means, what have we interpreted and what can we learn from it.
There are certain things that will not be taught in medical schools, and it is usually learnt out of our own interests. The Caduceus is one of them. Being in the medical profession for so many years, have we ever thought what that symbol that we wear on our coats, print on our prescription pads and textbooks, stand for? So let us get reminded of some of the long forgotten facts in medicine. The worthiness of the medical symbol has been debated for a long time. If you observe closely there are two symbols that are used to represent medicine as seen in Figure 1. One is the Caduceus, and the other is the Rod of Asclepius. Caduceus is a symbol with a short staff entwined by two serpents, sometimes surmounted by wings while the Rod of Asclepius is the one with a single snake. The similarity between both these symbols is the snake.
Why A Snake?
Have you ever wondered why is a snake, which is a symbol of destruction used ironically as a symbol of healing? Well, the answer lies deep sown in history when Moses, around 1400 BC, used the bronze serpent erected on the pole to cure the people who were bitten by snakes. The other reasons why serpent has been used is the shedding of the skin that indicated longevity and immortality. The snake’s ability to change from a lethargic stage to one of rapid activity symbolized the power to convalesce from an illness. Charas and Martyn (1673) subjected the viper to innumerable experimental investigations and concluded they were valuable remedies for itch, erysipelas, measles, smallpox, leprosy and were a valuable adjunct to the production of a beautiful skin. Hence, the snake has been a powerful symbol of healing itself.
The snake mentioned in the symbol is an Aesculapian snake which belongs to the family Colubridae. Its zoological name Elaphe longissima. Smooth, glossy, and slender, the snake has a uniformly brown back with a streak of darker color behind the eyes. The snake’s belly is yellowish or whitish and has ridged scales that catch easily on rough surfaces (like that of a pole or staff).