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THESE TIDBITS COME from no less than the U.S. National Institutes of Health, from Wikipedia, and from R&T.
“There are certain things,” the NIH’s National Library of Medicine writes, “that will not be taught in medical schools, and it is usually learnt out of our own interests. The Caduceus is one of them.”
In particular, the National Library of Medicine observes, “The Caduceus is a symbol of Hermes or Mercury in Greek and Roman mythology. Caduceus … is identified with thieves, merchants, and messengers, and Mercury is said to be a patron of thieves and outlaws, not a desirable protector of physicians.”
And whatever is “Holy Caduceus!” doing on the cover of R&T, February 1983?
Ancient Origins. Wikipedia observes, “Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus has its roots in a Mesopotamian origin with the Sumerian god Ningishzida; whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dates back to 4000 BC to 3000 BC.”
By contrast, a single snake appears on the Rod of Asclepius. The Greek god Asclepius was a deity of healing and medicine.
Greek gods Hermes and Tiresias are associated with a rod containing the original pair of intertwined snakes. What the snakes were doing at the time is open to conjecture. The Hermes legend suggests the two serpents were fighting. Tiresias’ has it they were involved in a more pleasurable activity; this legend gets complex when Tiresias is transformed into a woman for seven years.
The Bible. Around 1400 BC, Moses used a bronze serpent on a pole to cure people who were bitten by snakes (Numbers 21:5–9). Also, NIH notes, a snake’s shedding its skin indicates longevity and immortality; a snake’s ability to change from a lethargic stage to one of rapid activity was thought to symbolize the power to convalesce from an illness.
Mixed Messages. NIH notes that in 1902 the U.S. Army Medical Corps adopted the Caduceus as its insignia. No one seemed to mind Hermes’ reputation as “the protector of human heralds, travellers, thieves, merchants, and orators.”
Talk about mixed messages.
To add to the confusion, as NIH notes, in 1910 the American Medical Association adopted the (single-snake) Rod of Asclepius as its symbol. The Royal Army Medical Corp, French Military Service, and other medical organizations had done the same.
Today, the World Health Organization and Medical Council of India have the Rod of Asclepius as a symbol. The U.S. Army Medical Corps, the Public Health Service, and the U.S. Marine Hospital have the twin-snake Caduceus as theirs.
R&T Follows Suit. In February 1983, R&T road-tested the Porsche 911 Cabrio. “Zuffenhausen blows the lid off the 911SC,” it wrote.
Back in those days, cover blurbs were generated in creative shouting matches in the Editor-in-Chief’s office. I believe I was the loudest suggesting “Holy Caduceus!”
Not long after the issue appeared, we got a letter correcting our use of “Caduceus.” “You may not know this, but it’s the symbol of the medical profession.”
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021