What is the Bowl of Hygeia?
The pharmacy profession has used numerous symbols over the past centuries. These symbols include, but are not limited to, the mortar and pestle, the Rx sign, various alchemical symbols, the show globe, the green cross, the salamander, “A” for apothecary (Apotheke), and the Bowl of Hygeia.
The Bowl of Hygeia is the most widely recognized international symbol for the profession of pharmacy today. Several sources indicate that the symbol may have been used as an emblem of St. John dating back to first century a.d. This is based on the legend that a trophy containing poison was offered to the apostle. There is also 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.
However, no proof has been found to substantiate either of these claims. We do know that the Bowl of Hygeia was associated with pharmacy as early as 1796, when the symbol was used on a coin minted for the Parisian Society of Pharmacy.
The Bowl of Hygeia originated from Greek mythology and is universally depicted as a snake wrapped in one manner or another around a bowl. Aesculapius (pronounced Es-Kah-Lay-Pi-Ous and sometimes spelled Asklepios) was the Greek god of medicine and healing. He was the son of Apollo, who was the son of Zeus. Zeus became afraid that Aesculapius would render all men immortal because of his healing power, so he killed him with a thunderbolt.
Temples were built for Aesculapius, and harmless serpents were found inside. These serpents appeared dead because they were stiff. However, when picked up and dropped, they slithered away. The people at that time thought the serpents were brought back to life by the healing powers of Aesculapius, which ultimately caused them to become the symbol of healing.
Hygeia, the daughter of Aesculapius and the goddess of health, is usually depicted with a serpent around her arm and a bowl in her hand because she tended to the temples containing these snakes. We have since separated the serpent and the bowl from Hygeia, and this has become the internationally recognized symbol of pharmacy. Now the bowl represents a medicinal potion, and the snake represents healing. Healing through medicine is precisely why pharmacy has adopted the Bowl of Hygeia symbol. APhA adopted the Bowl of Hygeia as its symbol to represent the pharmacy profession in 1964.
Now, 2,500 years later, the Bowl of Hygeia is widely used as a symbol of pharmacy. In celebration of vast human achievements in the science of medicinal cures, this new pendant also looks ahead towards a vision of what is yet to come in this field.
What will the next century in pharmacy bring? The cure for cancer? Treatments that can be digitally designed, prescribed, transmitted, and printed on a machine in rural areas across the globe from the labs that developed them? This is already in the early stages of happening. Exciting times!
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