Snakes in Medicine: Slippery Symbolism

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Image of Hygieia and Asclepius with staff and snake between them, accompanied by dogs, representing watchfulness.

Bas-relief of Hygeia and Asclepius overlooking our main entrance on 103rd St. Our 1926 building features numerous emblems and mythological figures associated with medicine. In this figure, father and daughter have the figure of the staff and snake between them, and are accompanied by dogs, representing watchfulness.

The snake in our blog header is a reference to Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health, cleanliness, and sanitation. Hygieia was often symbolized by a snake drinking from a bowl and was shown in sculptures and images with a serpent entwined around her. Her father was Asclepius, the god of medicine, generally depicted carrying a staff with a snake coiled around it. Snakes were introduced in Asclepian temples across the classical world, for use in healing rituals, and have remained associated with medicine in many ways since that time.

Brass snake inlaid on foyer floor

Our snake in-situ on our foyer floor, one of a series of inlaid figures with a connection to the practice of medicine over time.

As Walter J. Friedlander describes in his 1992 The Golden Wand of Medicine, the staff of Asclepius remained the primary symbol of medicine in the West until the 16th century, when examples of the caduceus began to be associated with medicine. The caduceus shows two snakes entwined around each other and a central staff, often with wings, and was associated with the god Hermes, especially as a symbol of commerce and trade. It was only in the late 19th century that the caduceus began to be widely accepted as a symbol of medicine. Friedlander suggests that this emerged in part from the use of the caduceus as a printer’s mark by medical publishers.

A wooden caduceus symbol shown in NYAM rare book reading room

A caduceus symbol in the NYAM rare book reading room

Most significant for the use of the caduceus as a medical symbol in the 20th century was the United States Army’s General Order Number 81, July 17, 1902. Included in its new regulations concerning army uniforms was the instruction that the new Medical Department insignia would be a gold or gilt caduceus. Subsequent arguments about the symbolism of the caduceus interpreted its elements in medical terms. For example, the rod represented power, the wings intelligence and activity, and the serpents wisdom and healing. Others argued that its use should be understood more in the traditional sense associated with Hermes, symbolizing a noncombatant messenger or envoy.

Despite initial objections to the appropriation of the symbol, the caduceus is now widely used as a symbol of medical practice, while Hygieia’s bowl continues to be particularly associated with the practice of pharmacy.