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Health symbols through the ages

Lifestyle — Posted 31/10/14

From the red cross to skull and crossbones, we take a look at the meanings and history of the universal symbols of wellness.

In our day-to-day lives, we come across many symbols that can guide us away from danger or beckon us to care and treatment. From the internationally known Red Cross, to the recently arrived Biological Hazard symbol, their meaning is easily recognisable across many cultures and societies.

Times and uses may change, but the symbols have remained constant, some over many centuries. Here’s the interesting history of a few you may look at every day.

International symbol of access

The symbol of a person in a wheelchair is known across the world to indicate improved access for those with a disability, the aged or those with reduced capacity, such as pregnant women or people with infants.

Designed in 1968, the symbol is now used to indicate dedicated parking spaces for those requiring increased or easy access, special access seating on public transport, specially equipped toilet facilities and even buttons to call staff to aid those in need of assistance.

Apart from the addition of a circular head to the human figure, the symbol has changed little since it was first used. A newer version of the ISA, featuring a more engaged and active figure in the chair, is now in use by various medical facilities around the world.

Caduceus

Dating to classic Greek mythology, the caduceus is a symbol of two snakes winding around a staff with wings and has widely, although mistakenly, become known as a symbol of healthcare. The misused caduceus is mainly found in the United States, mainly the military, and in modern media such as TV and movies.

A more appropriate symbol to use is the Rod of Asclepius; a single snake winding around a rod or staff. This symbol represents the rod carried by the Greek god of medicine and healing, Asclepius.

Biological hazard

In the timeline of health symbols, the biological hazard symbol is relatively new. Used to denote any biological substance that poses a threat to the living – mainly humans – the biohazard symbol was designed in 1966, with the intention it have no connection to any existing symbol.

You’ll find the symbol in many healthcare establishments such as hospitals and dental surgeries. In other areas, such as viral research laboratories, the symbol is used to communicate dangerous substances.

The biohazard symbol is now recognised widely in popular culture, used in various media where stories are set in dystopian environments, like the zombie apocalypse.

Skull and crossbones

While the Spanish practice of marking cemeteries with a skull and crossbones – occasionally real – dates back many centuries, it wasn’t until 1829 that the symbol of a bare skull over two crossed bones became associated with the concept of death in other areas.

The practice of labelling poisonous substances with a skull and crossbones began in America around the mid-19th century. By the end of that century, the practice was widely used around the world.

The symbol is still in use today, though its appearance in popular culture – such as pirate stories – has resulted in diminished civil use, as children no longer perceive it as a deterrent.

The Red Crescent

Officially recognised since 1864, many people will know the red and white symbol of the Red Cross; an international society that cares for the sick and wounded. But some may not be aware of another symbol used to designate the same society; the Red Crescent.

After adopting a symbol that would be more welcomed by those from a non-Christian background, the Red Crescent was officially recognised in 1929, by the Geneva Convention, to designate care and treatment in countries where the majority population are Muslim.

In 2006, a third symbol, the Red Crystal, was officially announced for use in Israel. The symbol is reminiscent of the country’s existing emblem of care and treatment society, Magen David Adom. 

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