A consultation session with a doctor always means waiting for a long time and recently on one such occasion came the bouncer question. My younger daughter asks, “Dad, look a logo on the doctor’s car. What is it?” The knowledgeable dad in me who plays and fights with logos everyday quite confidently replied, “That is the symbol of medicine used by doctors as doctors’ logo on vehicles.” Pat came the next question, a little tricky one though, “But what is the use of that logo on a doctor’s vehicle.” I had to think a bit to answer this as I haven’t given it much thought before. Though not sure so myself, I faced the question bravely and answered, “Oh, that is used to recognise a doctor’s vehicle in an emergency so they can be given special privilege to reach their destination.” (I’m still unsure about my answer but she seemed satisfied.) Now came the million dollar bouncer question (maybe because she hears a lot of talk by me about logos and meanings of colours in branding and blah blah blah), “What is the meaning of that logo and why is a snake used in it?” I started to answer, as we do always to a child as if we know everything more than them, but alas, I really didn’t know the answer to that.
The researcher in me was motivated and I started learning about the symbol and here’s what I found out. The symbol of medicine or the doctor’s symbol (as it is also known) is the most mistakenly used logo in the world and doctors or healthcare practitioners around the world are the ones who misuse this symbol the most!
The real one: Rod of Asclepius
A single snake on a rod is called a Staff or Rod of Asclepius (sometimes also called Asklepios or Aesculapius). According to Greek mythology Asclepius was a son of Apollo and he is depicted as the God of Healing. His daughters are Hygieia (goddess of cleanliness), Iaso (goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (goddess of the healing process), Aglea (the goddess of splendor and adornment), and Panacea (goddess of universal remedy). The Rod was believed to have magical powers in the hand of Asclepius and though there are different versions to the story, the snake is believed to be on the rod to show the power of Asclepius to resurrect dead people through his healing process. The serpent is also a symbol of rebirth and fertility due its character of changing skins on its own. In those days snake bite was the one of the most dangerous causes of death but Asclepius is believed to have the power even to bring back the dead to life through his healing powers.
The mistaken one: Rod of Hermes or The Caduceus
Two snakes entwined on a rod with wings is called the Staff of Hermes. This symbol is also known as The Caduceus. According to Greek mythology, this is the staff of the Greek god, Hermes (also known as Roman Mercury). Hermes is known to be the protector of merchants, business men, shepherds and even gamblers, thieves and liars. Unfortunately this is the symbol mistakenly used by many people associated with healthcare and medicine. The serpents on this rod are believed to be symbolising peaceful negotiations in business and the wings depict the speed of Hermes as he was the messenger of the gods, too.
How did this misrepresentation occur?
There have been many studies conducted on the subject. According to a survey conducted in 1993 on 242 medical logos, over 38 per cent of American medical associations and over 63 per cent of American hospitals use the Caduceus as their symbol. It is believed to be first represented by the US Army in 1903 while creating a logo for their Medical Corps Unit. The Caduceus symbol is also used by more than 75 per cent commercial establishments as a symbol of trade. Therefore, this symbol got more popularised as we see the symbol of Hermes more than the symbol of Asclepius all around us.
Here is a famous quote about this misrepresentation:
As god of the high-road and the market-place Hermes was perhaps above all else the patron of commerce and the fat purse: as a corollary, he was the special protector of the travelling salesman. As spokesman for the gods, he not only brought peace on earth (occasionally even the peace of death), but his silver-tongued eloquence could always make the worse appear the better cause.
From this latter point of view, would not his symbol be suitable for certain Congressmen, all medical quacks, book agents and purveyors of vacuum cleaners, rather than for the straight-thinking, straight-speaking therapeutist? As conductor of the dead to their subterranean abode, his emblem would seem more appropriate on a hearse than on a physician's car.
— Stuart L. Tyson
Both logos may look similar but both stand for very different symbolisms. Using the right logo goes a long way in sending across a message. There are no wings on the logo of medicine and only one snake on the rod.
(The author, Pradeep Menon, is co-founder, head — Branding & Strategy
Blackswan (India) Ideations.)