FALLS CHURCH, Virginia –
From uniforms and branding to wall decorations and command seals, Navy Medicine is steeped in symbolism.
Oak leaves, acorns and caducei adorn the collars and sleeves of Navy medical personnel. Red Crosses emblazon our white-hulled hospital ships. Images of triumphant eagles and fouled anchors and the colors “blue and gold” abound throughout the Enterprise connecting us to big Navy.
Throughout its history, Navy Medicine has continually leveraged these powerful communication tools to create a service and mission identity. But where did these symbols come from? And why were they adopted?
The Geneva Red Cross and Hospital Ships
Across the globe, the Red Cross (or Geneva Red Cross) is the universal symbol of impartiality and medical assistance.
Under the Geneva Conventions, medical providers who wear the Red Cross are protected in armed conflicts. The symbol was originally designed by Swiss humanitarian and founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross Henry Dunant. It is the inverse of the Swiss national flag and a nod to his country’s long history of neutrality.
Owing to the misperceived connotations as a religious and medieval heraldic symbol carried into battle by Crusaders, the Red Crescent and Red Crystal were later adopted as alternative symbols that carry the same meaning.
In 1898, the Navy’s USS Solace (AH-2) became the first U.S. hospital ship to fly the Red Cross flag denoting its role as a non-combatant in the Spanish-American War.
However, looking at photographs of the ship in 1898 you will not find a Red Cross painted on its hull. Red Crosses did not appear on hospital ships until after 1899. Thereafter, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, all hospitals ship -- regardless of service or country of origin -- were to be painted white with Red Crosses on the “sides, superstructures, stacks and decks for identification purposes.” Today, hospital ships USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are each marked by nine Red Crosses.
It can be argued that the Red Cross has done its job in identifying and protecting hospital ships. To date, only one Red Cross-marked hospital ship has been attacked by an enemy combatant -- USS Comfort (AH-6) off of Okinawa in May 1945.
The Red Cross has also been a symbol used by the Navy Hospital Corps and before 1948, Corpsmen wore Red Crosses on their uniforms.
Early in World War II, at battles like Guadalcanal, Red Crosses marked the helmets and brassards worn by Corpsmen making them prime targets for enemy snipers eager to shift the tide of battle. But even without these markings, Corpsmen have been identifiable because of their actions on the battlefield.
Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Stanley Dabrowski once noted that Corpsmen at Iwo Jima were often singled out because they looked and behaved differently from Marines. “We carried [medical kits] which I didn’t like at all because they marked us as Corpsmen ... because of this, we were told to carry side-arms not as offensive weapons, but for self-protection.”
The Herald’s Wand and Aesculapian Staff
Outside of the Red Cross, the caduceus is arguably the most recognizable “medical” symbol in the world.
One study found that 76 percent of American healthcare organizations used the caduceus as part of their branding. This includes the Army Medical Department which has utilized the caduceus since the nineteenth century, and its Medical Corps has worn the caduceus since 1902.
For Navy Medicine, the caduceus was once worn by warrant officer-pharmacists in the early years of the Hospital Corps; it has also adorned the uniforms of the largest enlisted rating in the Navy since 1948.
The symbol’s hallmarks are two snakes or serpents intertwining a staff capped by a pair of wings. In Greek mythology, the caduceus was an attribute of Hermes, the herald or messenger of the gods. In fact, the name “caduceus” is a Latin term that derives from the Greek for “herald’s wand.”
Whether through the herald’s connections to alchemy or simply by error, the caduceus was purportedly first used as a medical symbol as early as the 16th century. Some scholars contend that the caduceus was used erroneously in place of the staff of Aesculapius which, by contrast, features a single coiled snake.
Aesculapius — the Greek god of medicine and healing — has often been referred to as the “snake-bearer.” His association with the snake — a symbol of healing and immortality — may be tied to the creature’s ability to shed its skin and perceivably "begin life anew."
Some scholars have also theorized that the image of the snake on the staff was inspired by the ancient practice of removing parasitic worms from subcutaneous tissue by making an incision in the skin in the worm’s path and then wrapping it around a stick until it was fully extracted.
In either case, this tried and true symbol of medicine has appeared on the uniforms of Navy surgeons as early as 1830 and is featured on the seals of the Navy Medical Department, Air Force Medical Service and the Defense Health Agency today.
Acorns, Oak Leaves and Tall Tales
First adopted by the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in 1948, the Navy Medical Department flag featured a heraldic shield with the caduceus (symbol of the Hospital Corps) and four variations of a spread oak leaf (for each staff corps).
The oak leaf — symbolic of the oak tree and in turn strength and longevity — has long been used as a motif by the Navy and Navy Medicine. Sprays of live oak have adorned uniforms of both Navy line and staff officers as early as the 1820s. The oak leaf has been a chief symbol of the Navy Supply Corps. And gold and silver oak leaves are used today to denote the rank of Navy lieutenant commanders and commanders, respectively.
In 1826, the oak leaf insignia first appeared on the collars of Navy surgeons. Sixty years later, the oak leaf and acorn were officially adopted by the Navy Medical Department and have been utilized as Medical Corps insignias ever since.
In his Short History of Nautical Medicine (1941), historian and Navy physician Capt. Louis Roddis acknowledged the popularity of the oak leaf in the Navy, but theorized it also held a deep medical connection through its association with ancient Druids:
“The physician-priests of the Druids are linked closely with the oak leaf and acorn, which are with equal propriety considered as symbols of the medical profession. These are the insignia worn by the Medical Corps of our own Navy ... the connection of the oak with medicine is very definite.”
Whether or not the members of the uniform board conjured thoughts of Druids when they settled on the oak leaf we just don’t know and the existing records do not reveal the decision-making process. What we do know is in the ensuing years the Nurse Corps, Dental Corps and Medical Service Corps have each adopted the oak leaf symbol to represent their own communities.
• Nurse Corps. From 1918 to 1947, Navy nurses actually used an insignia identical to Medical Corps (gold oak leaf with a silver acorn) and distinguished only by the letters “NNC” (for Navy Nurse Corps). After 1947, the Nurse Corps adopted the acorn-less oak leaf representing their foundational role in Navy Medicine.
• Dental Corps. The Dental Corps’ oak leaf insignia features two acorns that symbolize Dental Surgeons Emory Bryant and William Cogan, the Navy’s first two commissioned dentists.
• Medical Service Corps. Since 1948, the Medical Service Corps has been represented by an insignia known as the “twig” (an acorn-less spread oak leaf with a stem). The stem represents the support the Medical Service Corps provides to the Navy Medical Department.
- Friedlander, WJ. The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine. Greenwood Press, 1992.
- Gray, David. Many Specialties, One Corps. The Pictorial History of the U.S. Navy Medical Service Corps. Second Edition, 2017.
- Kanmodi, K., et al. On Snake or Two? Exploring Medical Symbols Among Medical Students. Acta Medica Martiniana, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2019.
- Massman, E. Hospital Ships of World War II: An Illustrated Reference to 39 United States Military Vessels. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., Publishers, 1999.
- Miller, DG. History and Symbolism of the Naval Medical Corps Insignia. Armed Forces Medical Journal, Vol III, No. 7, 1952.
- Nayernouri, T. Asclepius, Caduceus, and Simurgh as Medical Symbols, Part I. AIM, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 2010.
- Roddis, Louis. A Short History of Nautical Medicine. New York: P. Hoeber, Inc, 1941.