Above: Example of the staff of Asclepius used in the arms of the Royal Society of Medicine.
Below: Example of the staff of Hermes used as a symbol of health care.
Asclepius (Latin: Aesculapius) is the mythical ancient Greek god of healing and during his lifetime a famous physician. His parents were said to be the god Apollo and Coronis, a princess of Thessaly who died while Asclepius was still a child. Apollo entrusted the child's education to Chiron, a centaur (half man - half horse) and son of Chronus. Most of the centaurs were savage but Chiron was wise, civilised and kindly and famous for his knowledge of archery, medicine, music and prophesy.
Chiron educated Asclepius in the healing arts. Eventually, Asclepius became so skilled in surgery and the use of healing medicinal plants that he could even restore the dead to life, which angered Hades, ruler of the dead. Hades complained to Zeus, ruler of all the gods, who killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. The children of Asclepius included his daughters Hygeia and Panacea who were symbols of health and healing respectively.
Two of the sons of Asclepius appeared in Homer's Illiad as physicians in the Greek army. Their supposed descendents formed the Asclepiadae, a large order of priest physicians who controlled the sacred secrets of healing, which were passed from father to son and practiced in temples of health called Asclepieia. The dreams of patients were interpreted by the Asclepiadae to find the method of treatment.
Asclepius is traditionally represented holding a staff with his sacred serpent coiled around it, (example: upper right) symbolizing renewal of youth as the serpent casts off its skin. The similar symbol of a staff with two snakes and surmounted by wings, (example: lower right) widely used by the medical profession is actually the caduceus or wand of Hermes, messenger of the gods and protector of merchants and thieves. This seems to have replaced the staff of Asclepius as a symbol for the medical profession, probably for aesthetic reasons because of the symmetry of the wand of Hermes.