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Bowl of Hygieia, a symbol of pharmacy

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Callie JonesThe Bowl of Hygieia has been used as a symbol of the pharmaceutical profession for over 200 years, at least since 1796 when it was used on a coin minted for the Parisian society of pharmacy. It was later been adopted by a number of national pharmacy associations, including those of the US, Canada, Australia and Pakistan, as well as the International Pharmaceutical Federation.

In Greek and Roman mythology, Hygieia, the goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation, was a daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine. While her father was more directly associated with healing, Hygieia was associated with the prevention of sickness and the continuation of good health, hence her name is the source of the word “hygiene”.

Statues of Hygieia were created, but there is no clear description of what they looked like. She was often depicted as a young woman feeding a large snake that was wrapped around her body, or drinking from a bowl, or patera, that she carried.

Zeus killed Asclepius because he feared that he might use his healing power to render all men immortal. After the death of Asclepius, harmless serpents were found inside temples built in his honour. These serpents appeared dead, but when picked up and dropped they slithered away. People believed that the serpents were brought back to life by the healing powers of Asclepius and they became a symbol of healing.

Hygieia tended to the temples containing these snakes and so is depicted with a serpent around her arm and a bowl of medicinal potion in her hand. The bowl and the serpent have become separated from Hygieia and have become an internationally recognised symbol of pharmacy. The Bowl of Hygieia Award in the US is considered one of the profession’s most prestigious prizes and is awarded by individual states to pharmacists with outstanding records of civic leadership in their community.

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