Healing Symbols caduseus lapel pin ©Trimtag Trading Inc
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Healing symbols of medicine

Healing Symbols caduceus lapel pin ©Trimtag Trading Inc
The above silver winged caduceus lapel pin is supplied by Trimtag Trading Inc. to a number of EMS clients

Seeing progress of science and medicine is a hopeful sign as we enter the second year living under a global health pandemic. Healing symbols worn on the uniforms of EMS paramedics and health care workers aiding our collective recovery are the inspiration for this Insignia Insights post. We examine how two different healing symbols with snakes came into use to identify various practitioners of medicine.

One snake or two?

One healing symbol is the caduceus (see the lapel pin in the featured image). The other is the Rod of Asclepius (Aesculapius in Latin). The caduceus, or staff, has two serpents entwined around it, while the Rod of Asclepius has only one snake.

Snakes may seem an odd choice to associate with medicine. But snakes have a long history as tools of healing in ancient biblical and cultural rituals. Looking further into the origins of these healing symbols reveals different meanings. Understanding how they both came into use by many different kinds of medical practitioners is part of the story.

Rod of Asclepius

Statue of the Greek god of healing holds the Rod of Asclepius. Photo by Michael F. Mehnert, Museum of Epidaurus Theatre
Asclepius, photo Michael F. Mehnert
EMS pink epaulette with the healing symbol with a single snake known as the Rod of Asclepius
Epaulette reflecting the Rod of Asclepius, supplied by Trimtag Trading Inc.

Belonging to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, his tool makes an obvious connection to medicine.

That explains why the Royal College of Physicians, and the Paramedic Association of Canada use the Rod of Asclepius in their logos. Many other modern healthcare practitioners, ambulance services, EMS and medics use this healing symbol for their identities.

On this embroidered pink slip-on epaulette, worn to create awareness for Breast Cancer in October of each year, the Rod of Asclepius is centred over a red maple leaf. In addition to this item, Trimtag supplies standard epaulettes and other uniform insignia items to various paramedic services.

Military medical healers

Borrowing from ancient mythology to create insignia is a common practice of many military organizations. Providing medical support to operations, exercises and training, army medical personnel were among the first to begin using the Rod of Asclepius on uniforms in the late 19th century.

the single serpent on a staff…has been generally regarded as a more fitting emblem for the medical profession. The badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and of other medical corps within the British Commonwealth, shows a staff with one serpent entwining it. – W.H. Hattie, M.D., Canadian Medical Journal, 1928

Different healing symbols Canadian Army Medical Corps coin vs U.S. Army Medical Corps.
L: Royal Canadian Medical Services Assoc coin R: U.S. Army Medical Corps

In 1898, the Royal Army Medical Corps was formed in Britain. The single snake emblem soon spread throughout the British Commonwealth, including Canada. The Royal Canadian Army Medical Department formed in June 1899.

According to Doctor Hattie, the badge of the French medical service also uses the healing symbol with a single serpent. The American’s chose a different healing symbol: a winged caduceus.

In 1902, the United States Army Medical Service adopted a device with two serpents wrapped around a staff with wings outstretched. The US Public Health Service (now the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, or HHS), and the US Marine Hospital soon followed.

This began the common acceptance of the winged caduceus as a medical emblem in America.

Caduceus became the winged wand of Mercury

Caduseus is held in this relief sculpture from 1660s on the Royal Amsterdam Palace, photo C. Messier
Mercury, photo C. Messier
Caduceus healing symbol on York Region Paramedic Services shoulder patch
Caduceus on York Region Paramedic Services shoulder patch supplied by Trimtag Trading Inc.

The Greek god Hermes, (the Roman Mercury), is a swift messenger and divine herald. Apollo, his half brother, was the one who warded off disease and healed the sick.

So why did the ‘winged wand of Mercury’ become associated with medicine?

Because he achieved peace by throwing his rod at two fighting snakes. His caduceus became a symbol of healing when the snakes wound themselves around it peacefully instead.

Much later, although exactly when or why is not clear, wings were added to the top of the caduceus. We speculate it may be the evolving mythology of Hermes’ speed appearing as wings on his sandals or helmet.

Adding wings could also have been influenced by one of Henry VIII’s court physicians. Sir William Butts (1485-1545). Supposedly a serpent and winged device were part of his personal crest. Butts and other physicians to the king created medicinal recipes based on traditional medieval remedies like herbs, lapidary and even unicorn horn! (There are more unicorns later…read on)

We see two pairs of wings on a marble relief sculpture of Mercury at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam dating from about 1660. He holds a winged caduceus, and wears a helmet with wings. Writing in the Canadian Medical Journal in 1928, Dr. W.H. Hattie admits, “It is difficult to say when this latter device (with wings) came into use as a medical emblem.

Snake fights. Personal branding. Maybe wings were a mere flight of fancy by artists expressing lofty ambitions of their sponsors. The reason wings got added on top of the caduceus is lost to history.

Official shields and creative license

Healing symbols the Paramedic Chiefs of Canada pandemic front line logo 2020 Paramedic Day
Courtesy Paramedic Chiefs of Canada

In 2018, the Canadian Heraldic Authority granted the Paramedic Chiefs of Canada its own official shield of arms. The elements include unicorns in reference to their ‘healing powers’.

Arms: Or a star of life Azure its rod of Aesculapius Or all within an orle of maple leaves Gules. The crest: A Canadian Inuit dog courant proper. Supporters: Two unicorns Or armed and unguled Azure crined Gules standing on a rocky mount proper.- Canadian Heraldic Authority

Today, heraldic traditions and artistic license continues with both symbols of healing. And some designs are just for special occasions.

Unlike the PCC’s shield is the modified logo, (shown left). It was created for the 2020 Paramedic Services Week held virtually last May. A mask and eye shield is over the caduceus healing symbol and atop the blue star of life and red maple leaf.

Paramedic Services Week happens this year on May 23-29, to engage the public and recognize exemplary service. Perhaps a time for you to buy comemorative coins, or donate to support and honour the service of paramedics.

Fundraising rides are hopefully resuming later this year. They help the Canadian Paramedic Memorial Foundation fund the building of a National Monument in Ottawa. It will mark the dedication and sacrifice of all Canadian civilian and military paramedics who have lost their lives in the line-of-duty.

Ask about Trimtag’s EMS insignia

Trimtag Trading Inc. creates all types of healing symbols on uniform insignia. We make shoulder crests, pins and epaulettes for EMS paramedics and health care workers, whether your logo has Mercury’s winged caduceus or the Rod of Asclepius.

If your organization is on the front lines of our essential healthcare system, contact us for more information or to get a quote. Thank you for taking care of us, and stay safe.