October 16, 2018

The picture of health

Masthead for Plan for Health Kaiser Permanente member newsletter, 1956.

Quick — what’s the symbol commonly used to depict medical practice?

If you said 2 serpents wrapped around a winged staff, you would be right — and wrong.

The story of the symbol representing medical care is one of mistaken identity. In the United States, we usually think of the caduceus, 2 snakes twisted around a winged staff. Its origins go back to antiquity, where it was carried by the Greek god Hermes and represented commerce and negotiation. It was later appropriated by the Roman god Mercury. The caduceus never referred to medicine (or at least the essence of healing), but it looks very much like the Greek Rod of Asclepius (composed of a single snake and staff, no wings), which does. What happened?

It appears that when the U.S. Army Medical Corps developed their branch logo in 1902 they picked the wrong symbol, and it has permeated American medical graphics ever since.

 

Rod of Asclepius/caduceus hybrid cover graphic on an offprint of "The Kaiser Plan," two-part series on Kaiser Permanente by Stuart Lester in Medical Economics, February-March 1944
Rod of Asclepius/caduceus hybrid cover graphic on an offprint of "The Kaiser Plan," two-part series on Kaiser Permanente by Stuart Lester in Medical Economics, February-March 1944
Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, circa 1946. Caduceus and Staff hybrid. Now Kaiser Permanente Washington.
Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, circa 1946. Caduceus and Staff hybrid. Now Kaiser Permanente Washington.
Logo for Medical Coaches Incorporated, Oneonta, NY - bus/caduceus logo with clever slogan "Health on Wheels" 1957, from the Dr. Morris Collen AMHT collection
Logo for Medical Coaches Incorporated, Oneonta, NY - bus/caduceus logo with clever slogan "Health on Wheels" 1957, from the Dr. Morris Collen AMHT collection.
Masthead for Planning for Health, Kaiser Permanente Southern California member newsletter, 1958.
Masthead for Planning for Health, Kaiser Permanente Southern California member newsletter, 1958.
Pin from the Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing, circa 1960.
Pin from the Kaiser Foundation School of Nursing, circa 1960.
Logo with computer data tape and semi-caduceus for the Shepherd Foundation, Automated Medical Health Test program in Australia, 1971, from the Dr. Morris Collen AMHT collection.
Logo with computer data tape and semi-caduceus for the Shepherd Foundation, Automated Medical Health Test program in Australia, 1971, from the Dr. Morris Collen AMHT collection.
Cover for Spectrum, Kaiser Permanente member magazine, by John Michael Yanson, 1990.
Cover for Spectrum, Kaiser Permanente member magazine, by John Michael Yanson, 1990.

Also see article on the Kaiser Permanente logo.

Group Health, 2007, caduceus. Now Kaiser Permanente Washington.
Group Health, 2007, caduceus. Now Kaiser Permanente Washington.