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April 24, 1996

The Symbol of Medicine: Aesculapius or Caduceus?

Author Affiliations

Tulane University New Orleans, La

JAMA. 1996;275(16):1232. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03530400020029

To the Editor.  —Since antiquity, the Aesculapian staff has served as a symbol of medicine and the art of healing. The emblem is depicted by a single serpent coiled around a rough, knotty staff. For various reasons, the symbol of medicine is often misrepresented as the caduceus, a winged staff with 2 intertwined serpents. Though similar in appearance and today often used interchangeably, the staffs have neither the same meaning nor the same origin.The origin of the Aesculapian staff is subject to broad speculation. However, there are 3 accounts that suggest its origin. The first is from Greek mythology.1 In this myth, Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, observes a serpent placing a magical herb in the mouth of a dead snake. The herb brings the snake back to life.The second account, also from mythology, maintains that the god Aesculapius was imported to Rome (circa 295 BC)