I would like to thank Dr James Warren for a nice overview of Greek classical medicine (BCMJ 2006;48:382-384). But I feel that there may be an error in describing the staff of Aesclepius (Asklepios) as having a double serpent wound around it.
Dr Warren writes: “This is the source of the caduceus—two serpents wound around a staff—that today remains as an emblem of physicians and the practice of medicine.” Indeed it is a description of the caduceus, which is the rod of Hermes (also called Mercury). Hermes represents knowledge and travel among other things. The caduceus is often confused with the staff of Aesclapius, which has only a single serpent and no wings.
The Canadian Medical Association symbol correctly contains the staff of Aesclepius. On the other hand, the US military insignia for its medical corps erroneously uses the rod of Hermes.
The history of medicine and its symbolism is an important and often overlooked topic in most medical programs today.
Thank you Dr Warren for your article.
—Ari Giligson, MD
We are grateful for Dr Giligson’s clarifications. The reference to the caduceus as a symbol of physicians and the practice of medicine was included in the author’s original manuscript, but rather than catching this error, we compounded it by adding the description of its appearance. Clearly, we were suffering from the same confusion as the US military.—Ed
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