Trivia Smackdown: Asklepian vs. Caduceus


It’s too horrible to ponder what life would be without trivia, so I won’t (and besides, everyone knows that trivia isn’t really trivia at all, but precious knowledge nuggets that must be nurtured and cherished and trotted out the next time there’s a lull in conversation).

Today’s precious knowledge nugget comes by way of The New York Times Science section: "Slithery Medical Symbolism: Worm or Snake? One or Two?" It’s a discussion of the Asklepian (as the Times has it; a more common usage in English appears to be Aesculapian, checking both Merriam-Webster online and the number of Google hits that come up) versus the caduceus as the proper symbol of the medical profession. Paraphrasing Albert Brooks, you know the symbol as the stick thing with a snake (or snakes) wound around it. I haven’t been looking closely enough these past decades, because the difference had escaped me. And a difference there is:

"In Greek mythology, Asclepius was a half-mortal who had the power to heal the dead. He learned it by seeing a snake he had killed with his staff revived by another snake, which had crammed herbs into its mouth.

"Using the same herbs, Asclepius saved a man killed by one of Zeus’s thunderbolts. (Zeus frowned on that presumption, which also threatened to put his brother Hades, the god of the dead, out of business, so he zapped Asclepius too. Zeus later relented and made Asclepius the god of medicine.)

"Several historians blame the mix-up on a 19th-century British publisher and an American Army surgeon. The publisher, John Churchill of London, used the caduceus on popular medical texts he exported – but as a printer’s mark, because Hermes was the god of commerce.

"The surgeon, Capt. Frederick Reynolds, lobbied hard in 1902 to have a gold caduceus adopted as the badge of Army doctors. ‘From Captain Reynolds’s correspondence with the surgeon general’s office,’ two Australian medical historians sniffed last year in The Annals of Internal Medicine, ‘it is apparent that he was unaware of the distinction.’

"…Doctors who know the classics are particularly offended because Hermes was also the god of thieves and, even more ominously, was charged with leading the souls of the dead to the underworld.

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