The emblem of the Christian faith makes an ideal symbol for the medical profession.
On this page we introduce:
This makes the cross an ideal symbol for the medical profession, in its vocation to keep us physically alive and promote our physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Many of today's hospitals and medical services began as Christian institutions. Crusading knights not only took part in Muslim-bashing battles to control foreign lands and expand the Christian empire, they also had a military escort role in protecting pilgrims from bandits. As part of this role, they offered medical care and in the year 600, Pope Gregory ordered the building of a hospital in Jerusalem for that purpose.
After several hundred years of dramatic change, in 1119, the Hospitallers and the Knights Templar were formed. And a hundred years or so after that, the knights' uniform was a red tunic bearing a white cross.1
Many heraldic crosses are adaptations of old crusader symbols, and many medical crosses are similarly based
Today, the cross is used in many contexts: fashion jewellery and tattoos, military campaign medals and punk rock - all far away from the Christian context. In comparison, medicine's role in sustaining life makes its use of the cross a most appropriate symbol.
|Christian / Heraldic symbol|
Related medical symbol
The snake has been the symbol of a number of deities associated with healing, such as the Greek god Asclepius (Latin: Aesculapius), son of Apollo.
One rather nasty 'snake' that has afflicted humans for thousands of years is the parasitic Dracunculus ('Guinea worm'), which grow to be one metre long before emerging through the skin.
(Did you think the monsters shown in the four Alien movies (1979-1997) were only fiction?)
Widespread in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, there were over 3,500,000 cases per year globally until 1986, when a concerted effort began to eradicate the problem. In 2009 there were only 3,142 reported cases and the worm could be extinct within the next year or two. In addition to being grotesque and excruciatingly painful, the worms can cause paralysis and death. There is no vaccine or cure, and the only way to extract them is to slowly wind them around a stick. This method may have inspired the rod of Asclepius symbol.
In the Hebrew Bible we read of the Israelites who, whilst crossing the desert, began complaining against God and the prophet Moses. God punished the people by sending serpents among them and many were bitten and died before Moses interceded by praying to God to forgive them.
God instructed Moses to raise a venomous snake on a staff and all the wounded Israelites who looked on it were immediately healed2. The Serpent Cross draws a parallel with Christ, who was raised upon a cross for people to look upon and be healed3.
The symbolism of the staff is authority and the snake means rebirth, due to its skin-shedding. This symbol is now used by several medical associations and companies, and extensively by military medical corps.
Psi is the 23rd letter of the ancient Greek alphabet. The uppercase character (left) differs only slightly from the lowercase (right).
In medicine, the psi symbol is used by psychologists and psychiatrists, but it is not nearly as common as the Rod of Asclepius, shown above.
The Greeks used this to refer to psyche, which means mind / soul. Whether these are closely related but quite distinct from one another, or identical, continues to be debated.
Whilst the symbol is used by scientists who may believe the mind and soul are identical, and die with the body, most religions consider the soul to be man's divine or God-given essence, which lives on after the body dies.
For Christians there is a very similar symbol that relates to this: the Tident Cross.
A famous variation of the Greek cross is the emblem of the Red Cross movement. More than one hundred years ago, this organisation was founded to aid those wounded in battle. The objective of the Red Cross emblem was to have a unified and distinctive sign that would be respected internationally.
Until the early 19th century, each country's army used a different coloured flag to mark its medical services: blood-red for France, peace-white for Austria, disease-yellow for Spain, and morbid-black for other countries. Hospital tents, medical workers and vehicles transporting the wounded, would be as vulnerable as any other military collateral, so it was common sense for countries to agree on a standard and easily recognisable sign for all armies. Such was proposed in 1863 by the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, forerunner of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
In 1864, the Federal Council of the Swiss Confederation convened a diplomatic conference which adopted the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. This included the use of the Red Cross emblem.
Contrary to popular belief, the 'red cross' (described above) is not in the public domain as a First Aid symbol. The International Standards Organisation recommends that a white cross on green background is used as a First Aid symbol.
Ironically, a green cross was used to identify the contents of a deadly artillery gas shell during World War I. These produced suffocating gasses like chloropircin, diphosgene, carbonyl chloride and chlorine, which irritate the soft mucous membranes of the respiratory tract and can lead to death. (See also white cross gas, yellow cross gas and blue cross gas.)
The Star of Life is a cross symbol used by the emergency medical services. It is commonly seen on ambulances and paramedic badges.
It is usually blue and features the familiar medical symbol in the centre; the Rod of Asclepius (see above). The six arms of the Star of Life represent some of the aspects of emergency medical care.
The symbol was designed in 1973 by Leo R Schwartz, EMS Branch Chief at the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in response to the concern that the Red Cross emblem was being mis-used by Emergency Medical Services (EMS). The Star of Life symbol also replaced the Omaha Orange Cross and was trademarked by the NHTSA in 1977 for 20 years.
The symbol's popularity is gradually spreading and can be seen incorporated in logos of medical-related items, even when there is no clear EMS link. In time, it may lose its EMS identity, just as the Red Cross emblem became a common but illegitimate first aid symbol.
In 1902, doctors met in Berlin at the International Tuberculosis Congress and delegates decided that because TB was so rampant they should declare war on this devastating disease, and in relation to that a 'battle standard' was conceived. Dr Gilbert Sersiron, representative of Lorraine, Eastern France, suggested that they should take as a symbol the doubled-barred Red Cross of Lorraine, since many victories for the French in battle fields of old were attributed to carrying this red cross into the fight.
At present the International Union Against Tuberculosis (IUATLD), with its headquarters in Paris, has branches in over 100 countries - all identified by red Lorraine crosses. (See for example the Hong Kong Tuberculosis, Chest and Heart Diseases Association HKTCHDA and the American Lung Association ALA).
During the First World War, Lorraine saw poison gas used extensively to choke to death an estimated 91,198 soldiers4. A dreadful waste of young lives, and yet today, that statistic is dwarfed by the killing and debilitation caused by COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases such as asthma and emphysema). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 75% of deaths from COPD in economically-advanced countries are directly related to tobacco. Worldwide, the tobacco epidemic kills over one million people every year5. But even this is dwarfed by deaths caused by TB6 which kills 1.5 million people every year7. And to make matters worse, HIV/AIDS is fueling a dramatic resurgence of TB, particularly in some African countries.7
It is bizarre that these problems do not hit the headlines as starkly as the more trendy Avian Influenza (bird flu), Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD - one of Britain's infamous exports), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), H1N1 Swine Flu, etc. Scientists are trying very hard to eradicate these before the get out of control. But the combined death toll attributed to Bird Flu, CJD, H1N1 and SARS, is in fact relatively small. Just a few thousand deaths in total. Ever.8
The battle to fight TB continues, but currently doctors and pharmaceutical companies are more interested in the government-funded, high profile, SARS, CJD and flu problems. The cash-strapped researchers for boring old TB are often pushed to the back of the waiting room with a bottle of bromide. Fighting TB is a double battle - against the disease and against a certain amount of apathy. Let's hope The American Lung Association (ALA), the European Respiratory Society (ERS), the Asian Pacific Society of Respirology (APSR), and similar organisations win these battles.
Meanwhile, governments around the world prepare for their own future battles against economic competitors by building new and more effective chemical and biological weapons. Purely for defence, of course. (See Black Death Cross and Crenel Cross.)
Various hospitals and other medical organisations have emblems based on the cross. This one, for example, is a logo made from two white doves on a red pattée cross, used by Tokushukai, a general hospital group in Japan. The red line separating the two doves represents the line on a cardiac monitor.
Not surprisingly, the St John Ambulance logo incorporates the cross used by the Knights Hospitaller, the Cross of Saint John, also called the Amalfi Cross. However, even though their national councils are known by the monastic term 'Priories', the organisation has no religious affiliation. Neither do they bear arms, even though they wear military style uniforms and use military terms for their ranks.
This volunteer first aid and ambulance service began in England in 1877 and later spread to the Commonwealth countries.
(Note the organisation's official writing style, with punctuation omitted: "St John Ambulance", not "St. John's Ambulance".)
Official website: www.orderofstjohn.org
St. Andrew's Ambulance is similar in many ways to the St John Ambulance organisation (see above) but they operate only in Scotland and Australia. They were formed in 1882 in Glasgow, where they still have their National Headquarters. They have, as one would expect, incorporated the St. Andrew's Cross in their logo.
(Unlike the punctuation of St John Ambulance, this organisation is called: "St. Andrew's Ambulance", not "St Andrews Ambulance".)
Official website: www.firstaid.org.uk
And finally, with tongue in cheek, we introduce the Miraculous Healing Cross.
With this cross, no doctors, medicines, hospitals or medical organisations are required. The healing is done via the symbol alone! (If that's what you want to believe.)
The one shown here is made from the tails of two white elephants. We are happy to say that no live animals were used in creating this symbol.
|1:||Template: Cartulaire general de l'ordre des hospitaliers de St Jean de Jerusalem (1100-1310), ed. Joseph Delaville le Roulx (Paris, 1894-1906), no. 78, no. 2479.|
|2:||Serpent on the staff: Num. 21:6-9|
|3:||Christ on the cross: John 3:14-21 See also The Meaning of the Cross|
|4:||Spartacus - www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/...|
|5:||WHO - www.who.int/...|
|6:||Tuberculosis (TB) - also called 'consumption' or 'wasting disease', because it consumes people and their bodies waste away. Another descriptive name was 'White Plague', due to the pallor of a victim's skin (see also Black Plague Cross)|
Source: World Health Organisaton, Global Tuberculosis Report 2014 www.who.int/...
|8:||WHO (Bird flu) - www.who.int/...,
CJD Surveillance Unit - www.cjd.ed.ac.uk/..., and
WHO (SARS) - www.who.int/...