Bowl of Hygeia

mortar and pestleThere are many symbols and items that represent the practice of pharmacy, such as the mortar and pestle, show globes, alchemical symbols and the Rx symbol. One of the most widely recognized symbols of pharmacy is the Bowl of Hygeia.

In Greek mythology, Hygeia was the daughter and assistant of Aesculapius (sometimes spelled Asclepius), the son of Apollo, grandson of Zeus, and the god of medicine and healing. Legend has it that Zeus was worried that Aesculapius would make mankind immortal because of his healing power. Out of fear, he killed Aesculapius with a lightning bolt. Temples were built for Aesculapius, and seemingly dead serpents were found inside. When these serpents were picked up and dropped, however, they slithered away. The people believed the serpents were brought back to life by the healing powers of Aesculapius, which ultimately caused them to be associated with healing.

Hygeia tended to these temples, so her classical symbol became a bowl containing a medicinal potion, with the serpent of Wisdom drinking from it. The serpent is symbolic of resurrection, and the bowl health and medicine. Interestingly, this same serpent is found on the so-called Staff of Aesculapius and on the Caduceus, both widely recognizable symbols of medicine.

In art history, Hygeia is often shown with her bowl and a snake coiled around either her arm or the stem of the bowl itself. The Bowl of Hygeia may also have biblical connections. The imagery of a snake on a pole is found in the Old Testament (Numbers 21:6-9), when a bronze serpent was used to heal the Israelites. Moreover, art historical depictions of St. John often show him holding a bowl with a serpent. According to Jared Savage, the first summer intern with John Wyeth and Company and the American Pharmaceutical Association, this is based on the story that a trophy containing poison was offered to the apostle.

mortar and pestleThere is speculation that the Bowl of Hygeia was used as a symbol for the apothecaries of Italy in 1222, since they used this emblem during the celebration of the 700th anniversary of the founding of the University of Padua. Though much of the historical usage of the Bowl of Hygeia has been lost to history, scholars know it was associated with the practice of pharmacy by as early as 1796, when the symbol was used on a coin minted for the Parisian Society of Pharmacy.Logo of the UA College of Pharmacy

The influence of Hygeia, Aesculapius and others dates back centuries. The original Hippocratic Oath began with “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Aesculapius and by Hygeia and Panacea and by all the gods ...” Today, the Bowl of Hygeia is universally associated with the practice of pharmacy. The American Pharmaceutical Association adopted it as its official symbol in 1964. Its message of health serves to guide the pharmacy profession.

Rosenberg, Ettie. “Hygeia.” The Pharmacy Expert. Web. 19 Aug. 2014.

Originally posted: October 17, 2014
Last updated: March 22, 2017
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