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What Do Snakes and Sticks Have to Do With Doctors?

If you’ve ever seen the World Health Organization or American Medical Association logo, or the “star of life” on the side of an ambulance, you might have wondered what a snake wrapped around a stick has to do with those who fix what ails us. Well, that stick is the asklepian, or rod of Asclepius. In ancient Greek mythology, Asclepius was the son of Apollo, and the god of medicine and healing. Depending on which historian you ask, he may have even been based on an actual historical doctor whose skills became so exaggerated that patients formed a cult around him.

The snake that’s wrapped around the rod may symbolize rejuvenation, because snakes shed their skin, or it could simply represent the healing of snakebites. It might also have something to do with antivenom or the medicinal properties of snake venoms.

The rod itself has more to do with medicine than the fact that a doctor-god carried it, though the explanations for the connection vary. It could be a reference to a traditional treatment of a parasitic nematode called Dracunculus medinensis or Guinea worm. The worm causes blisters on whatever limb it takes up residence in, which can be can be quite painful judging from the ancient Latin name for the infection: “affliction with little dragons.” To remove the parasite, doctors would cut a slit in the skin right in its path and, when it poked its head from the wound, take a small stick and slowly wrap the worm around it until the “little dragon” was fully removed.

The infection is relatively rare today, but the same extraction method is still used. The parasite and the treatment may have been so widespread and well-known in ancient times that the symbolic rod started out with worms on it, and they morphed into snakes centuries later.

Know the Difference

Whatever the snake and stick mean, the rod should not be confused with another snake & stick combo: the caduceus, featuring two snakes, a stick and wings, that’s often used as a symbol of medicine in the U.S.

The staff is said to have been that of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods. Hermes did not have a connection to medicine, and the medical use of the caduceus has a very modern origin. The U.S. Army Medical Corps adopted it as their symbol in 1902 at the insistence of a single officer who probably assumed a medical link after seeing it used as a printer’s mark on 19th century medical texts. The mark was used by several publishers in their books because they thought of themselves, like Hermes, as messengers and diffusers of knowledge.

Art historian Walter J. Friedlander, in his book The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine, collected hundreds of examples of both asklepian and caduceus logos and insignias in America and found that professional associations were more likely to use the staff of Asclepius and commercial organizations were more likely to use the caduceus. He noted that caduceus is more appropriate for commercial ventures, since it has more visual impact.

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