CEPI Curiosities: Aesculapius/Asclepius

CEPI Curiosities: Tales from Medical History's Strange Side

Hello again, fellow historico-medico aficionados, and welcome to another installment of CEPI Curiosities, our monthly dive into the medically strange. This time around, I hand the medical history reigns to a guest speaker: Jorge Colon. Jorge is currently performing admirable work as a CEPI intern and is an alum of the Out4STEM Program. Past interns have examined such topics as Chang and Eng Bunker (the original “Siamese Twins”), Harry Eastlack and FOP (Fibrodisplasia Ossificans Progressiva), CPP Fellow Chevalier Jackson and his collection of swallowed objects, and the difference between venom and poison. Jorge’s topic today examines the history of an omnipresent figure here at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia: Aesculapius, a marble statue of whom stands at the top of the staircase in the College’s rotunda.

Marble statue of Aesculapius at the top of the main staircase at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

 

Take it away, Jorge!

Different sources claimed Asclepius to be many things. Some claimed he was a mortal physician (such as in Homer’s Iliad) who was struck by Zeus with a lightning bolt and became god. In other accounts, Asclepius was the ancient Greek god of medicine, son of the god Apollo and Coronis. He was married to Epione, the goddess of soothing; together, they had nine children:their daughters were Panacea (goddess of medicines), Hygeia (goddess of health), Iaso (goddess of recuperation), Aceso (goddess of the healing process), Aglaea or Aegle (goddess of magnificence and splendor). They also had four sons: Machaon and Podalirius, legendary healers who fought in the Trojan War; Telesphorus, who accompanied his sister, Hygeia, and symbolised recuperation; and Aratus. In Roman mythology, he is known as Aesculapius.

Asclepius learned medicine and the healing arts from the centaur Chiron. According to legend, he once healed a snake, whom in turn taught him secret knowledge. The Greeks considered snakes divine beings that were wise and could heal mortals. This is why a single snake wrapped around a staff became the symbol of Asclepius; it later became the symbol of medicine. Asclepius became so skilled a healer he learned how to cheat death and bring people back from the underworld. As a result, Zeus killed him to maintain the balance of life and death and placed him on the night sky under the constellation of the Ophiuchus (the snake holder).

Asclepius developed a loyal following of mortals who traveled far and wide to one of many sanctuaries for healing, called Asclepions. The most famous sanctuary of Asclepius was the Epidaurus, which hosted athletic, dramatic, and even musical games in honor of Asclepius every four years. Today you may notice the staff of Asclepius adorned on things related to health and medicine, such as on medical professionals’ uniforms or on the sides of ambulances.

Logo of the American Medical Association

Logo of the American Medical Association, using the Rod of Asclepius

However, sometimes you may notice a different staff with two snakes wrapped around it and a pair of wings at the top. This symbol is the staff of Caduceus, which belongs to the Greek god Hermes. Hermes is considered the god of transitions and boundaries. He acted as herald of the gods and also escorted the souls of the dead when they transitioned from the mortal realm to the afterlife. The Caduceus was usually affiliated with public speakers and heralds. Printing companies also used the staff.

Image of the Staff of Caduceus

The Staff of Caduceus

However, because it looks similar to Asclepius’s staff, it is often misrepresented today as a symbol of medicine. This dates back to 1902 when the Medical Department of the United States Army used the staff of Caduceus. Today, professional medical organizations use the staff of Asclepius; however, many commercial medical firms make use of the Caduceus. Make sure you keep an eye out for both symbols and see if a commercial or professional group is using them.

Until next time, catch you on the strange side!

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