Thursday, January 26, 2017



the blog about the medicine and surgery of yesteryear

Dr Keith Souter  aka Clay More

It is almost a year since I last wrote a post in The Doctor's Bag. I thought that after Cheryl and Livia  published my book over at Sundown Press that I had said all that I needed to about past practices in medicine and surgery. My recent research activities, however, have convinced me otherwise, so I've packed the bag once again to tell you about other aspects of the medical art. 

The practice of medicine is something that every culture has developed. When people are unwell they inevitably try to do whatever they can to regain their health. It is not that we have an innate knowledge of how to regain our health, but we will seek out individuals who have knowledge of things that will help and we will put our trust in them and in their ability to heal.
These two things, knowledge and trust underpin the practice of medicine. Although no single culture can truly claim to have discovered medicine, yet the appearance of a recognised healing art seems to have gone hand in hand with the development of societies. At first in tribal communities the shaman, medicine man or woman would provide a proto-medicine which would be mainly based upon magic and a communication with the deities who were perceived to control the world. Then as civilisations developed and the organised worship of state gods was introduced, so would we see the rise of the priesthoods. It was natural that they would provide a rudimentary practice of medicine and the priest-physician or doctor would appear.
Although the origins of these priesthoods are buried back in the mists of antiquity, yet thanks to the development of writing, on stone, clay and papyrus, archaeologists and historians have been able to piece together a substantial body of evidence which shows that even in the earliest of cultures doctors were developing principles and practices that had some validity as medicines. We know also that bone-setting, assisted births and surgical practices such as trephination, the boring of holes in the skull, were practiced in even earlier times.

The symbols of medicine
If you look at the symbols that are used to depict medicine today, you will see that they form a direct link to antiquity. In the west the caduceus is generally thought to be the symbol of the medical and related professions. There is confusion about this, however, since there are in fact two symbols used by different medical organisations, and other health-related organisations have made adaptations of their own to indicate a particular feature of their calling.

The caduceus

The Latin word caduceus refers to the wand of the Greek god Hermes, known to the Romans as Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Caduceus was also an old name for epilepsy. This is interesting, since in ancient days it was considered to be a sacred disease. 

Mercury's wand

The caduceus is represented by a staff with two wings and two snakes coiled round it. In Roman days a white caduceus was used as a symbol of peace. From the sixteenth century it has been used as a symbol of the medical profession and it is now the adopted symbol of the US Army Medical Corps.  It is also used by the Catholic Medical Association and the Royal College of Radiologists. 

US Army Medical Corps

The Catholic Medical Association

The Rod of Asclepius is the other symbol and consists of a forked staff or rod with a single snake entwined about it. Asclepius was the Greek god of healing, whom the Romans adopted and called Aesculapius. The snake seems to have been a symbol of wisdom, fertility, regeneration and healing in Middle and far Eastern countries dating back to at least 2,600 BCE. 

The rod of Aesculapius

The snake associated with Asclepius is a species of rat-snake, Elaphe longissima, which is native to south-east Europe and Asia Minor. It is also found in areas of Germany and Switzerland, where it is thought the Romans introduced it at various health resorts.

The Royal Society of Medicine, The British Medical Association and the American Medical Association use the rod of Aesculapius and a single snake as their logos, as does the World Health Organisation and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. 

The Royal Society of Medicine

American Medical Association

World Health Organisation

The British Society of Medical Acupuncture have modified the rod of Aesculapius to show a needle with a single snake, on the background of the Yin and Yang symbol. 

The British Society of Medical Acupuncture

Talking of the Yin and Yang symbol, medical practice in ancient China, of course developed differently over the centuries, possibly owing to its isolation from the rest of the ancient world. Their medical practice was very much based upon a philosophical model, in which everything in nature was associated with polarity, the two opposites of Yin and Yang. Health was a state of balance between those opposites. The great polarity is the symbol of traditional Chinese medicine.


            There are many ways of looking at history. With this initial look at the symbols used by the medical, surgical and allied professions we can see that there are links or threads that we can follow across the centuries to the days of antiquity itself, and even to the symbolism of mythology.
THE DOCTOR'S BAG - MEDICINE AND SURGERY OF YESTERYEAR has been published by Sundown Press, available on ebook or paperback.


  1. You always put together an excellent post Keith.
    I am glad that you did this one. I have always wondered the meaning of those symbols.
    Thanks for posting

  2. Great to have you back! I have wondered if the history of the serpent and staff symbols were traceable to the Old Testament verse of Numbers 21:9...

    "And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived."

    1. That is interesting, Micki. I don't know exactly when the symbols were first used. The Biblical reference reference would be a plausible association, certainly. Yet the history of western medicine always goes back to Hippocrates and the Ascelpiad 'school' of physicians.

  3. Thanks, Jerry. I thought I'd start with a gentle one, then get into some serious surgery in later posts!

  4. Keith, so good to have you back on the blogging trail again! LOL I love your posts (as you well know!) and this one is no exception. Very interesting stuff! I'm anxious to see what you come up with next time around. I always learn something from you, Doctor Souter!

  5. Thanks, Cheryl. I'm planning some more practical posts.

  6. I am so thrilled to have you back and adding to medical knowledge. Loved your book, even got my local 'special collections' at the library to add it to their list. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. It has come in handy as I research the female doctors in Colorado before 1900. Doris

    1. You are too kind, Doris! Thank you for spreading the word.

  7. In doing research in another area I'm involved in I discovered that the US Army Medical Department adopted the Caduceus in 1902 in error as it was confused for the Aesculapius staff. The Caduceus has since been recognized as a medical symbol when originally it was not. In Europe today is used mainly as an administrative symbol.

    1. That is interesting, Gordo. I did not know that.

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