Descriptions of the Seal of the College and explanations of its symbolism have appeared in the Bulletin several times since 1915, but not recently. At least one generation of Fellows may now be interested in such information.
In 1915, the first Director of the College, Dr. John G. Bowman, urged the Regents and the Secretary, Dr. Franklin H. Martin, to authorize a competition among Chicago artists for the design of a seal, to replace a simple rod and serpent used in the first yearbooks. The prized result has been in use ever since, without change.
The official description of the Seal follows:
"Aesculapius, the symbol of European learning, and an American Indian Medicine Man are seated beneath a Tree of Knowledge, making offering of their symbols of healing in common service to mankind.
"Aesculapius is draped in conventional Greek fashion, wears sandals, and holds aloft, toward the Powers above, the rod and serpent, a common emblem of mystery and healing. The Indian Medicine Man is nude to his waist. His buffalo robe, hair side out, bound by a thong, is worn over the lower part of his body. He wears moccasins, has a single white feather in his loose hair, a gourd rattle in one hand, and a skin medicine pouch, decorated with feathers and paint, stands at his side. These are typical of the native resources in America.
"The words 'American College of Surgeons' appear in a circle around the upper portion of the emblem. Below appear the words: 'Founded in 1913,' and 'Omnibus per artem fidemque prodesse' (To serve all with skill and fidelity.)"
In December of 1982, Dr. Paul Friedman gave a talk about the Seal at the meeting of the Massachusetts chapter, and included interesting and amusing commentary on relevant mythology and history. We are indebted to him for a copy of his presentation, and his permission for our attempt at condensation, which follows.
The tree is said to represent the tree of knowledge, appearing to shelter both Aesculapius and the Indian Medicine Man. However, in the Bible, it was both good and evil. The serpent here was involved, but not in healing. There was also a tree of life, representing immortality, but we don't know whether the artist meant either. Leaves on the tree resemble those of the ash, which was called YGGDRASILL in Norse mythology. With roots gnawed by serpents in the nether world and branches eaten by a stag in the heavens, that mythological tree represents conflict between death and life, and thus a tree of life, of knowledge, of fate, of time, and of space.
Aesculapius appears in the Iliad as a human healer, but he also was a Greek god, synonymous with healing, and represented by the symbol of a serpent twined about a staff. In the complicated lineage of Greek mythology, it appears that Zeus and Leto begat Artemis and her twin brother Apollo. Apollo was enamored of Coronis, and left her pregnant when he went to Delphi on business. She was not faithful, as he learned on his return, and he complained to Artemis, who slew Coronis with a quiverful of arrows. Apollo then relented, so he called on Hermes to cut the still living child, Aesculapius, from Coronis' womb, thus antedating Caesar by quite a long time. Apollo took the boy to the cave of Cheiron, the Centaur, where he learned the art of medicine as the first surgical resident.
Skillful in surgery and the use of drugs, he became so good at resurrecting people from death, and charging a fee for it, that his great uncle, Hades, complained to Zeus that Aesculapius was stealing bodies from him. As any good chief of surgery would do, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt at Aesculapius and killed him, sending him across the river Styx. His father, Apollo, killed Zeus' armorers, the Cyclopes, in revenge, whereupon Zeus banished him to one year of hard labor in a local sheepfold. Having learned his lesson, Apollo thereafter preached moderation in all things and the phrases "know thyself" and "nothing in excess" were always on his lips.
Zeus restored Aesculapius to life, and he returned to healing. He sired Machaon and Podaleirius, who were Homeric battle surgeons, and also fathered Hygeia and Panacea. Many temples of healing, Aesculapions, sprang up; one of the most famous was at Epidauros, sort of the M.G.H. of ancient Greece. When the plague struck, Aesculapian physicians travelled to ancient Rome and helped to control the epidemic. They became so successful that Cato the Elder was perturbed and instigated laws restricting their immigration. Thus, we have the world's first F.M.G. problem.
Hippocrates was the most famous of Aesculapius' disciples, and he acknowledged his debt in the first sentence of his famous oath.
Medicine men were important figures in most primitive societies. They often organized into secret societies within their tribes and specialized in things like weather, snakebite, injuries, or sickness. They enjoyed high social position, attained by apprenticeships, rituals, and training, somewhat like Board examinations. The healers could amass wealth, and the outcome did not always have to be successful, provided the techniques were above reproach. The similarity of all this to medicine and surgery of today is indeed remarkable, and makes this element of the Seal quite appropriate.
Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons
Volume 68, Issue 10