Nurse Symbols – From Caduceus to Traditional Clothing

Various nurse symbols have become well-known throughout the history of healthcare.

Some nursing symbols are so popular they’re easily recognized by most people.

These symbols include the caduceus, oil lamp, nurse cap, and nursing uniform.

Each symbol provides a distinct meaning and purpose for those working in the healthcare industry.

Besides that, nurse jewelry and nursing pins present innovative ways for healthcare providers to display their profession and passion.

This article explains the history of numerous nurse symbols, so you understand their meaning and purpose better.

The Caduceus: The Most Well-Known Nurse Symbol

The caduceus is perhaps the most well-known nurse symbol in history.

Aesthetically, this symbol comprises two serpents coiled around an ancient staff.

It may also utilize wings and RN initials to signify the nurse’s position and title.

The caduceus is the nationally recognized symbol for the united states medical corps, navy pharmacy division, and public health services.

This symbol originates from Hermes in Greek mythology.

However, Hermes Trismegistus, in Greco-Egyptian mythology and Roman iconography, the messenger of the gods, also used this symbol.

Many people and societies have used this symbol throughout history, from the ancient east to India and mythology to iconography.

Symbolically the serpent staff represents Hermes and the tasks performed by the gods. So the story goes, Hermes saw two snakes arguing and fighting.

To stop the quarrel, he threw his rod between the two snakes. Consequently, the snakes ended their fight and wrapped themselves around the staff.

This pose became a symbol of stability and the settlement of arguments.

Over time the caduceus has seen numerous alterations into what we now know today as two serpents around a staff, often with wings.

Many industries implement nurse symbols into nursing jewelry, medical pins, clothing, and wine glasses/coffee mugs.

Its iconic image is unmistakable, providing instant recognition to healthcare workers who adorn this nurse symbol.

The Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of Asclepius is lesser-known among most civilians, and organizations rarely use the symbol.

However, this symbol is more prevalent in professional associations.

Aesthetically, this symbol features a single serpent wrapped around a rod rather than two intertwining serpents.

The rod symbol is also less decorative than the winged caduceus.

The Greek god Asclepius, known for his exceptional healing and medical expertise, wielded this staff.

 This staff is often confused for the caduceus wielded by the greedy god Hermes due to the design and snake.

However, the two staffs/rods have separate meanings and come from distinct gods.

Organizations in medicine and healthcare use the Rod of Asclepius symbol to represent expertise in healing and medicine.

Nevertheless, most registered nurses and healthcare professionals use the caduceus symbol.

As a result, nursing communities rarely see the Rod of Asclepius.

The Oil Lamp

The oil lamp is associated with Florence Nightingale, who is often considered the founder of modern nursing.

Florence Nightingale operated as a nurse during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), tending to injured soldiers.

During and after the war, she developed healthcare practices to provide outstanding care to patients and improve mortality rates.

The care she provided often continued late into the night.

As a result, Florence Nightingale carried an oil lamp while caring for injured soldiers.

She worked so often with the lantern that she became known as the lady with the lamp.

After the war, Florence Nightingale applied her experience and practice to British healthcare, improving patient care and reducing mortality rates.

She also funded the establishment of St. Thomas’ Hospital and opened a nursing school.

The oil lamp is a nursing symbol sometimes adorned on nursing pins or lapels during ceremonies.

The purpose of the oil lamp symbol is to pay respects to Florence Nightingale and her many contributions.

During the ceremony, nurses recite the Nightingale Pledge and may receive light to commemorate their dedication to the service of human welfare.

We must never forget Florence Nightingale’s nursing theories and considerable healthcare contributions.

Despite the oil lamp being a lessor known nurse symbol, its symbolic nature is no less significant or impactful.

The Nurse Cap

The nursing cap is a hat created during the early years of modern nursing and served two purposes for new and established registered nurses.

Firstly, the nursing cap/hat helped nurses protect and properly maintain their hair while at work.

Nursing caps came in long and short cap variations to accommodate different lengths.

For instance, the long cap accommodates long-haired nurses, while the short cap protects short haircuts.

Secondly, the nurse cap provided a professional appearance for registered nurses allowing patients and coworkers to recognize their specialty easily.

It ensured healthcare facilities looked professional and well-trained and signified a nurse’s expertise in the field.

Many nurses also wore matching white uniforms as part of their work attire.

During the early years of modern nursing, hard-working women primarily dominated this profession.

Only 1% of nurses in the early 1960s were men.

Moreover, only the women in the medical profession wore nursing caps.

Men entering the nursing profession have significantly risen over the decades.

Nevertheless, women still dominate the nursing profession.

Nowadays, it’s rare to see registered nurses wearing nursing caps.

Instead, surgical scrub caps adequately cover and secure most nurses’ hair.

The scrub caps protect a nurse’s hair better than traditional caps and provide more variety in design, length, and style.

Some nursing ceremonies still use the nursing cap today to signify a registered nurse’s graduation.

In addition, people wear nursing caps as part of Halloween costumes or during themed events.

Traditional Nurse Uniform

The traditional nurse uniform comprised a professional white dress, white cap/hat, stockings, and white shoes.

The purpose of the uniform was to help patients, coworkers and citizens easily identify nurses and their roles as medical professionals.

However, the traditional nurse uniform is no longer in circulation, with most nurses wearing medical scrubs.

Many nurses wear stand scrubs, tops, bottoms, scrub caps (not always necessary), and work-appropriate footwear.

These alterations allow nurses to work more comfortably and efficiently throughout the day.

The low cost of scrubs also allows medical professionals to purchase replacements when necessary.

Registered nurses no longer wear traditional nurse uniforms in professional settings.

However, the importance of this symbol and presence still exists.

For example, TV shows, movies, and pictures show nurses wearing traditional uniforms and nurse caps.

The uniform is also used sometimes during ceremonies to signify a registered nurse’s graduation and entry into the medical profession.

Finally, some people love wearing traditional nurse-style uniforms during Halloween or other costume events.

Besides wearing more fashionable scrubs today compared to the past, many healthcare facilities allow nurses to have tattoos.

Nevertheless, the tattoos must be work-appropriate and non-offensive.

Nursing Pins

A nursing pin or lapel is a small emblem that signifies the completion of the nursing program.

Graduated students receive these pins at pinning ceremonies to identify the nursing school they attended.

In short, the nursing pin symbolizes welcoming new nurses who have successfully graduated into the medical profession.

Although not associated with official college graduation, some nurses wear personalized nursing pins or lapels to display their profession, support, and interests.

These pins come in different designs allowing nurses to personalize their uniforms and add personality to their clothing.

Ultimately, the nursing pin provides a recognizable symbol for passionate nurses passionate about showing their commitment and experience.


The various nurse symbols, uniforms, and decorative accessories worn throughout history play a significant role in the nursing profession and medical care.

Fundamentally, these symbols provide meaning, maintain an invaluable medical history and reaffirm essential values.

Moreover, they establish a foundation for nurses to continue practicing and developing their craft to provide exceptional patient care.

The history of some nurse symbols isn’t well known within the nursing community.

However, it’s essential to support the history of these symbols and the people, ideas, and values they represent. 

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