I’m a marked man.
I commissioned some artwork that was inspired by several things: The really good EMS “save” we had a few years ago, where Kit and I thwarted death.
And more recently, the death of my friend James — a reminder that at some point, we always lose.
And, last, an amazing sculpture I’ve loved.
Pull it together, do some interpretation, and what you get is now permanently on my right forearm:
The Symbology Decoded
That’s Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Note that he’s not holding a caduceus — a rod with wings with two snakes wound around it — to fend off Death. The caduceus is the symbol carried in the left hand of Mercury, the messenger of the gods — and guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves. It was mistakenly adopted as the symbol of medicine by the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1902 at the insistence of a single officer.
Rather, the Rod of Asclepius, with a single snake, is the correct symbol of medicine. It was wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, the deity associated with healing and medicine.
It’s most commonly recognized in modern times as part of the Star of Life, which you’ll see being worn by street medics, and plastered on rescue vehicles and ambulances.
“If it’s got wings on it, it’s not really the symbol of medicine,” says the communications director of the Minnesota Medical Association. “It’s something like using the logo for the National Rifle Association when referring to the Audubon Society.”
So the next time you see a medical association or clinic with a caduceus as a symbol, know that they value “merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves” over your health — or at the very least, over accuracy.
The way medical care has evolved in the U.S., it kind of makes sense, eh?
Progress is Being Made
Not all American medical groups use the wrong symbol. The American Medical Association itself has used the Rod of Asclepius for over a century, and its logo includes a stylized depiction, as shown here.
And even the military is starting to come around. This is the new (adopted October 2014) crest (or regimental insignia) of AMEDD — the Army Medical Department. Note the Rod of Asclepius in the shield.
(Why the rooster? “The rooster is associated with the ancient Greek and Roman god of healing and medicine, Aesculapius,” Wikipedia notes. “The Ancient Greeks believed that the rooster’s crowing at dawn drove away the evil disease-spreading demons from the temples so that it could be a place of healing.”)
Symbols matter, and I’m glad to see the Army slowly moving in the right direction.
Last, what’s the sculpture I mentioned?
This is on the front of the Fulton County Department of Public Health and Wellness (Building 1) in Atlanta, Georgia, built in around 1950. The sculptor was Julian Hoke Harris (1906-1987), who taught at the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech, his alma mater. He was also known as a freelance sculptor who contributed to more than 50 public buildings in the southeast.
My instructions to the tattoo artist were: convert the caduceus to the Rod of Asclepius, and make the snake’s head come across the staff, as in the Star of Life; take the man’s features down a notch, including making his right hand look a bit more normal-sized; five full fingers on each hand of Death, please, but not so freakishly long; and lose the wavy base.
The shading details were left in his hands, and he did an amazing job. James would have loved it.