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Bowl of Hygeia —
Honoring Leadership and Service to the Community

What is the Bowl of Hygeia?

Bowl of Hygeia

Many symbols have been used to represent the pharmacy profession over the years. Some are very recognizable, such as the mortar and pestle and the "Rx" sign. Others, like various alchemy symbols, the show globe, the green cross, the salamander and the "A" for apothecary (Apotheke), are perhaps somewhat less widely used.

But one clearly stands apart as the most widely recognized international symbol for the profession of pharmacy today — the Bowl of Hygeia. The Bowl of Hygeia has a storied history involving both Greek mythology and, some believe, Christianity. The Bowl of Hygeia, universally depicted as a serpent wrapped around a bowl, originated from Greek mythology.

The origin begins with the mythical all-powerful Zeus — the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus and of the Pantheon of gods who resided there. Zeus had a son named Apollo, another god with many roles, including those related to prophecy, music, light and medicine. Apollo, in turn, had a son named Aesculapius (pronounced Es-Kah-Lay-Pi-Us and sometimes spelled Asklepios) who became the Greek god of medicine and healing.

This is where the story gets interesting.

Zeus became afraid that Aesculapius would render all men immortal because of his healing power. Because of this fear, Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt. Mortals then built temples to honor Aesculapius. But soon, harmless serpents were found inside. These serpents initially appeared dead because they were rigid. However, when handled and dropped to the ground, they miraculously slithered away.

At that time the people believed the serpents were brought back to life by the healing powers of Aesculapius — ultimately the reason he became the symbol of healing.

Hygeia (pronounced Hi-jé-a), the daughter of Aesculapius, was the goddess of health. The word "hygiene" originates from Hygeia. She was responsible for maintaining the temples containing these serpents. Over time, she came to be depicted with a serpent around her arm and a bowl in her hand.

There are also several sources that indicate the symbol may have been used in Christianity. One legend links the Bowl of Hygeia to St. John the Apostle, dating back to the 1st century A.D. The Bowl of Hygeia also is believed to have been 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 in 1922.*

The Bowl of Hygeia has been associated directly with the pharmacy profession since 1796. In that year, the symbol was used on a coin minted for the Parisian Society of Pharmacy. Since then, the bowl has come to represent a medicinal potion, while the serpent is associated with healing. This idea of "healing through medicine" is the reason the pharmacy profession has adopted the Bowl of Hygeia symbol. To further solidify its place in history, the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) adopted the Bowl of Hygeia as its symbol to represent the pharmacy profession in 1964.

*These claims cannot be fully substantiated.