What Are the Nursing Symbols & What Do They Mean?

3 Min Read Published April 25, 2023
What Are the Nursing Symbols & What Do They Mean?

Throughout humankind, we have used symbols to represent an array of things. Nursing is no different! Most anyone in the medical profession is familiar with the nursing symbol the Caduceus. What about the Staff of Asclepius, and how do you even pronounce that? And, are you familiar with the significance of the oil lamp (Lamp of Knowledge or Life)? 

So, what are these things, and how did they wind up being symbols for nursing? Let me share a few fun facts and the history of each of these nursing symbols, as well as a mistake surrounding these well-known symbols that nursing school may not have taught you!

What Are the 3 Nursing Symbols?

The three main nursing symbols are:

  1. The Caduceus

  2. The Staff of Asclepius

  3. The Lamp Of Knowledge (Life)

1. The Caduceus

Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The Caduceus, also known as the Staff of Hermes, is a rod with two snakes intertwined around it with a set of wings at the top. It’s probably the most well-known of all the nursing symbols.

It comes from Greek mythology, and it belonged to Hermes. Hermes was reportedly the son of Zeus…the guy with the winged sandals and he was apparently quite a trickster. Legend has it that he stole cows from Apollo and hid them in a cave. When Apollo found him, Hermes played the lyre for him. Apollo liked it so much that instead of punishing Hermes, he gave him the Caduceus in exchange for the lyre.

Hermes was the only god in Greek mythology who could cross between the land of the living and Hades. According to history, the Caduceus could put people to sleep, wake people up, make death gentle, and revive the dead. 

So, if you’re wondering what all of that has to do with nursing, you’re probably picking up on a little-known mistake made by the medical profession. So, let me introduce you to the Staff of Asclepius.

2. The Staff of Asclepius

Source: National Museum of Civil War Medicine

The staff of Asclepius, pronounced “a-ˈsklē-pē-əs, is a knotted wooden rod intertwined with a single snake. It belonged to Asclepius who was known as the god of healing and medicine in Greek mythology. According to the myth, snakes whispered medical knowledge to him. 

Sounds a little strange I know, but the Greeks saw snakes as a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation because they could shed their skin. In doing so, they became healthier and bigger. 

Have you guessed the mistake yet? Well, back in the 1850s, the United States (US) Army mixed up the Caduceus with the Staff of Asclepius. They adorned the hospital steward’s uniforms with the Caduceus instead of the Staff of Asclepius, and the rest is history!

The mistake was eventually noticed, but by then it was too late. The Caduceus was widely recognized as the symbol of the medical profession. Today, both the Caduceus and the Staff of Asclepius are used interchangeably throughout the nursing profession. 

3. The Lamp Of Knowledge (Life)


Source: Lamp of Knowledge

Last, but not least, we can’t talk about nursing symbols without paying homage to the lamp of life. 

Even though most view the oil lamp as a lesser-known symbol of nursing, I disagree! I think most nurses know the oil lamp, or lamp of life, is a symbol of our profession.

For those who may not know, though, let me elaborate. 

We ALL know who Florence Nightingale is, right? She made so many contributions to the nursing profession throughout her career. One of her earlier contributions was during the Crimean War. The facilities where the wounded were cared for were very dirty. Florence and her crew came in and “cleaned up” the place. 

Florence Nightingale realized early on that filth was not conducive to healing, and she changed the way medical facilities operated. She was a pioneer of her time! She was known for rounding on her patients at night by the light of an oil lamp which is why she is known as “The Lady with the Lamp.”

Many colleges and universities, to this day, have nursing students hold the Florence Nightingale Lamp and recite the Nightingale Pledge at their pinning ceremony. It is only fitting that “The Lady with the Lamp” still shines as a symbol of our profession!

Christy Book
Christy Book
Nurse.org Contributor

Christy Book, BSN, RN, is a registered nurse from Louisiana. She has served as an assistant director of nursing, director of nursing, and divisional director of nursing in the long-term care setting. Other nursing experience includes medical-surgical, allied health instructor, and immigration. She is also an American Heart Association BLS Instructor. Christy’s passion for writing, researching, and educating others is what led her to become a nurse writer.

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