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Cir Cir. 2010 Jul-Aug;78(4):369-76.

[Origin of three symbols in medicine and surgery].

[Article in Spanish]

Author information

Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán, Secretaría de Salud, México, Mexico.



Humans use many ways to communicate with fellow humans. Symbols have been one of these ways. Shamans probably used these in the beginning and adopted other distinctive symbols as they were introduced.


The origin, the reason and use of three symbols in medicine and surgery are discussed. Some symbols currently remain the same and others have been modified or have disappeared. The oldest of these three symbols is the staff of Aesculapius, related to the Greek god of medicine and health. Since the 19th century, in some countries the symbol of the medical profession has become the caduceus, but the staff is the natural symbol. The second symbol is the barber pole that was created at the beginning of the Middle Ages. This was the means to locate the office and shop of a barber/surgeon in towns, cities and battlefields. On the other hand, the surgeon made use of the emblem of the union, trade or fraternity to which he belonged, accompanied by the bowl for bloodletting. The third symbol is the wearing of long and short robes that distinguished graduate surgeons from a medical school and the so-called barber/surgeons.


Symbols facilitate the manner in which to identify the origin or trade of many working people. Some symbols currently remain and others have either been modified or are obsolete, losing their relationship with surgery and medicine.

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