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February 3, 1999

Of White Coats and Stethoscopes

Author Affiliations

Copyright 1999 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.1999American Medical AssociationThis is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

JAMA. 1999;281(5):474. doi:10.1001/jama.281.5.474

A white coat. The country doctor's black bag. A stethoscope. A snake-entwined staff. The oath of Hippocrates. The clinical acumen of Osler and the compassionate service of Schweitzer. These are the symbols and personifications of our chosen profession.

One symbol of medicine since antiquity has been the Aesculapian staff.1 A glance through this journal will uncover the staff in the American Medical Association's emblem, depicting a snake coiled around the rough, knotty staff of the Greek physician Aesculapius. In this issue of MSJAMA, Nathan W. Williams explores the connection between snakes and the art of healing across cultures; Judith Anne Stanton introduces us to Aesculapius. Williams reveals that the serpent can represent the forces of both healing and destruction. Stanton demonstrates that society's alternating praise and distrust of the medical profession have been present throughout time and suggests that such ambivalence will continue.

Valerie A. Jones turns her attention to another Greek healer, Hippocrates, who bestowed on modern medicine a legacy of ethical thought embodied in his famous oath. This pledge has become part of a new ceremony that Jones describes in her discussion of a second inherited symbol of the profession—the physician's white coat.

Timothy Lahey, MD, argues that we must preserve the purity of the meaning behind such symbols as the white coat by always acting in the best interest of our patients.

By exploring the symbols that form and influence the culture of medicine, we hope to come closer to the heart of what it means to be a physician.

Rakel  RE One snake or two?  JAMA. 1985;2532369Google ScholarCrossref