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4 Popular Nurse Symbols And Their Meanings

What are nurse symbols? In the medical field, you may come across various symbols. These symbols can be easily overlooked, as you may casually find these symbols on pins, jewelry, and scrubs on display for people to see. These symbols have considerable significance in the healthcare industry and have their own stories behind them. While we know they indicate nursing, do you know where they come from?

This article will educate those interested in learning more about these symbols. This article will explain the symbols, origins, and meanings behind them.

What Do Different Nurse Symbols Mean?

In this section, the article will describe four popular nurse symbols and discuss their origins and how they came about.

1. The Caduceus

The Caduceus is one of the most recognizable symbols in the medical field. It features the staff wrapped by two snakes and a pair of wings. One of the oldest symbols, it's often used in nursing paraphernalia. Its origins date back to Ancient Greece. The depiction of the Greek god Hermes carried the staff. The Romans depicted the staff as an object held by Mercury, the messenger of the gods. The symbol was also found in places like Ancient India, Mesopotamia, and Roman Civilization.

In 1902, the Caduceus was used as the medical symbol in the US Army Medical Corps. Ever since then, the symbol has been used by many health organizations. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) uses the Staff of Asclepius without the wings.

2. The Staff of Asclepius

The Staff of Asclepius, also known as the rod of Asclepius, is closely related to the Caduceus. While they are not depicted the same, the staff of Asclepius is pictured with one snake wrapped around the staff. The one thing they both have in common is their origin, not representing medicine or nursing. 

76% of healthcare organizations use the Caduceus, whereas 62% of professional associations use the Staff of Asclepius.

Why is a snake used as a symbol of healing? The answer dates back to 1400 BC when Moses used the bronze serpent on a pole to cure those bitten by a snake. Experiments on snakes in 1673 proved they were valuable remedies to many diseases. This is why the snake is seen as a healing symbol, despite also being a symbol of destruction. Other reasons relate to snakes shedding their skin, portraying a message of longevity and immortality.

3. The Oil Lamp

The oil lamp is one of the lesser-known, uncommon symbols viewed in the medical field. Florence Nightingale, known as "The Lady with the Lamp" and founded the modern nursing practice, is credited for creating the oil lamp symbol. You may ask, why a lamp? Florence often cared for the sick and injured during the night, carrying a light so she could make her way through the darkness. Her dedication paved the way for future practitioners. She served in the Crimean War from 1853 

Often used in pinning ceremonies for new nurses, the lamp represents nurses' dedication and selfless work. The lamp also means compassion, reliability, goodwill, and everything significant to nursing practice. Many nurses during the pinning ceremony hold a lamp to symbolize these meanings while reciting the Nurses Pledge. The pledge is meant to uphold the profession and maintain confidentiality. An excellent example of the lamp being used is the International Council for Nurses using it as their logo.

4. The Nurse Cap and Uniform

While no longer in use, the traditional nurse cap and uniform are considered objects associated with the nursing profession. They are the first things you think of when you think of nurses. The nurse cap and uniform are no longer in circulation and are no longer popular, but they still have much history behind them. The nursing cap and uniform were derived from Early Christian communities, originating from one of Florence Nightingale's students. The old uniforms were made to resemble nuns. The uniforms were altered during World War 1 and evolved.

The evolution from the traditional cap and uniform to scrubs happened due to the new surge of male nurses in the 1960s. By the 1990s, scrubs were fully introduced, phasing out the old uniform and cap. However, the cap and uniform remain potent symbols in modern times, representing nurses and the medical field.

Now you know the four popular medical symbols in the healthcare field and their important history and meanings! If you want to learn more historical facts, read our article on the most influential doctors and nurses.


Booher, RN
Blog published on:
October 20, 2022

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