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EXPLAINED: Meaning of Snakes on KNH & Other Hospital Logos



EXPLAINED: Meaning of Snakes on KNH & Other Hospital Logos

Every symbol has its unique meaning and story behind it. But what does this unique symbol, Caduceus (a staff with two snakes coiled around it), which is used in various forms and modifications by many medical organizations mean?

The medical symbol of serpents wrapped around a staff is a familiar one in the medical field, decorating pharmaceutical packaging and hospitals alike.

This medical symbol started way back in 1400 BC, traveled through time and underwent many changes, and misconceptions to its present state.

There are actually two versions of the symbol. The winged version is known as a caduceus and the stick is actually a staff that was carried by the Olympian god Hermes.

A photo collage depicting the Greek god Hermes holding the staff (left) and two snakes rolled on the staff (right)

In Greek mythology, Hermes was a messenger between the gods and humans (which explains the wings) and a guide to the underworld (which explains the staff). 

Hermes was also the patron of travellers, which makes his connection to medicine appropriate because doctors of the golden days had to travel great distances by foot in order to visit their patients.

But why use the snake? Well, the answer lies deep down in the bible when Moses, around 1400 BC, used the bronze serpent erected on the pole to cure the people who were bitten by snakes.

The other reason why the serpent has been used is the shedding of the skin which indicated longevity and immortality. 

The symbol originated when Mercury once attempted to stop a fight between two snakes by throwing his rod at them, whereupon they twined themselves around the rod, and the symbol was born.

Also, the snake’s ability to change from a lethargic stage to one of rapid activity symbolised the power to convalesce from an illness. Hence, the snake has been used as a powerful symbol of healing.

Interestingly, the Rod of Asclepius belonged to Aesculapius, who was the revered Greek god of healing.

The Greeks regarded snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals to honour Asclepius, as snake venom was thought to be remedial and their skin-shedding was viewed as a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

Additionally, the modern use of the staff of Aesculapius started when the American Medical Association had the staff of Aesculapius as its symbol in 1910. 

Even today, the World Health Organization (WHO) has the staff of Aesculapius in them while the US Army Medical Corps, Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH), Kenya Medical Training College (KMTC) and Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH) use the Caduceus largely as a result of the adoption of the Caduceus as its insignia.

The use of the symbol is very ironic as how can destructive creatures be used to represent a healing purpose? The answer lies in the snakes’ characteristics of skin shedding representing immortal life and sudden change in activity emphasising transit from sickness to cure.

The snake has influenced mankind since ancient times and has been given a place in legends and mythologies.

It was also depicted in ancient age reliefs, statues and coins, and was included in written texts.

A photo collage of the KMTC logo (left) and WHO logo (right)

A photo collage of the KMTC logo (left) and WHO logo (right)

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