The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine

The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine

The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine

The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine

Synopsis

The Caduceus, two entwined snakes set upon a rod, was the ancient symbol of Hermes, the Greek god of merchants. Today, it is a common and popular symbol of the medical and allied professions. This book traces the use of the caduceus symbol and answers the question of how it came to be the symbol of medicine. The book covers its origins in the Greco-Roman world, its use by a medical publisher in the early 19th century, the U.S. army's adoption of the symbol in 1902, and its widespread use after World War I.

Excerpt

"Of making many books there is no end" saith the preacher of Ecclesiastes. and we shall thank the Muses for it! What a diminished life we would lead if that process ended.

Books, like living things, begin as seeds, and seeds have at least two characteristics Germane to this metaphor--at the outset and at first glance they are small and perhaps rather uninteresting, and they usually convey no indication of what they will become when fully-grown. The Golden Wand of Medicine derives from such a seed--the "question of how a particular object, the caduceus, came to symbolize a particular activity, medicine, especially when there is no evident connection between the two." the first glance at this seed might appear to interest only those specializing in such realms as antiquity and medical symbolism. Indeed it could be asked, what difference does it make whether the caduceus or the staff of Aesculapius is the historically correct and proper emblem of the profession of medicine. But it does matter, because we use history. If we are to use the past to try to understand the "origins of our predicament," and for short-range social and political planning, the story of what went before needs to be as accurate as the storyteller can make it.

But there is more than mundane utility in the study of history, just as there is much to be gained by watching a seed generate through its cycle and into the mystery of reseeding and dying that simultaneously closes the ring and begins it again. Understanding the process by which an idea develops can be as intrinsically fascinating and instructive as watching what is done with it in application. Even without utility, which some deny history in any case, an understanding of the past can confer a sense of place and purpose in personal and vocational lives. One need not be a physician to be elevated by an appreciation of the emblems of medicine any more than one need be an art historian to gain from a detailed study of Rembrandt Anatomy of Dr. Tulp.

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