Caduceus versus Rod of Asclepius - the symbols of emergency services

CarolinaFireJournal - By Jason Boan
By Jason Boan
01/11/2012 -
We see them everywhere — on our uniforms, our ambulances, our equipment, and for some, tattooed on their body. Do you know why we use it or what it means? What is the difference in the Rod of Asclepius and a caduceus? While very similar in appearance, each has its own meaning and history tied to it. A caduceus is a winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it. The Rod of Asclepeus is a staff with a single snake wrapped around it. image

The caduceus, or herald’s staff, was originally used to represent the Greek god Hermes or Roman god Mercury who helped people with commerce and negotiation. In addition to being the patron of commerce and traders, Hermes was also the patron of thieves, liars, and gamblers. Given the latter, it has widely been considered inappropriate for use as a medical symbol. There is very little evidence of any association with medicine. The first widespread use of the caduceus was in the 1850s when the U.S Military adopted it. In 1871, it was designated by the Surgeon General as the seal of the Marine Hospital Service, which later became the U.S. Public Health Service in 1889. It was adopted by and added to the uniforms of Army medical officers in 1902.

There is a lot of controversy and confusion surrounding the adoption and use by the U.S. military given the lack of historical evidence tying the caduceus to medicine. Back in the early 1900s, there was considerable discussion about the irony of this relationship. Despite this growing view, after World War I, the Army Medical Department, the Navy Hospital Corps, and for a time the American Medical Association used the caduceus as their symbol. In 1912, after more discussion, the AMA finally abandoned the caduceus and the more appropriate Rod of Asclepius was used.  The caduceus is still used by the Army Medical Corps for its insignia, but now uses the Rod of Asclepius as its main symbol.

The Rod of Asclepius is a reference to the Greek mythological figure Asclepius. Asclepius was thought to possess healing powers. Therefore, this seemed a more appropriate symbol for the medical profession.

The Omaha orange cross was originally used as a symbol of emergency providers. As EMS began appearing and the symbol was used more and more, the American National Red Cross complained that it too closely resembled their symbol. The red cross on a white background used by the Red Cross is regulated by the Geneva Convention. So, the Star of Life was born in 1973. Four years later, it was patented by the National Highway Traffic Safety and Administration. The entire symbol was created with emergency medical care as its core thought. The Rod of Asclepius was used as the centerpiece because of its direct link to healing. The star itself was created with six points, and each point defined a primary task of responders.

There are six “points” to the star, starting at the top and going clockwise:

  • Detection — First rescuers on scene, usually those involved in the incident. They observe the scene, identify the problem and dangers, and take appropriate action.
  • Reporting — The call for professional help is initiated by those first on scene.
  • Response — First Responders arrive and provide immediate care within their scope of practice.
  • On scene care — EMS personnel arrive and provide care within their scope of practice.
  • Care in transit — EMS personnel transport the patient via the appropriate form of transportation and provide care during the transport.
  • Transfer to definitive care — The appropriate level and specialized care is provided at the hospital.

The trademark for the Star of Life has expired, and no organization has taken on the responsibility of enforcing the use of it. Even so, it is used internationally as the primary identification for emergency medical personnel, vehicles, and equipment.

Jason Boan has 14 plus years in emergency medicine, starting as a volunteer EMT/firefighter in high school in Texas onto six years as a combat medic in the U.S. Army. Boan has been in involved in EMS in South Carolina for the last six years. He currently works as a paramedic for Aiken County EMS and part time at Ft. Jackson EMS.
Comments & Ratings

  1/24/2012 12:03:59 PM

New Comment 
can you give 3 similarities and 3 differences as bullet points.?

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