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What Do Snakes and Sticks Have to Do With Doctors?

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If you’ve ever seen the World Health Organization or American Medical Association logo, or the “star of life” on the side of an ambulance, you might have wondered what a snake wrapped around a stick has to do with those who fix what ails us. Well, that stick is the asklepian, or rod of Asclepius. In ancient Greek mythology, Asclepius was the son of Apollo, and the god of medicine and healing. Depending on which historian you ask, he may have even been based on an actual historical doctor whose skills became so exaggerated that patients formed a cult around him.

The snake that's wrapped around the rod may symbolize rejuvenation, because snakes shed their skin, or it could simply represent the healing of snakebites. It might also have something to do with antivenom or the medicinal properties of snake venoms.

The rod itself has more to do with medicine than the fact that a doctor-god carried it, though the explanations for the connection vary. It could be a reference to a traditional treatment of a parasitic nematode called Dracunculus medinensis or Guinea worm. The worm causes blisters on whatever limb it takes up residence in, which can be can be quite painful judging from the ancient Latin name for the infection: "affliction with little dragons." To remove the parasite, doctors would cut a slit in the skin right in its path and, when it poked its head from the wound, take a small stick and slowly wrap the worm around it until the “little dragon” was fully removed.

The infection is relatively rare today, but the same extraction method is still used. The parasite and the treatment may have been so widespread and well-known in ancient times that the symbolic rod started out with worms on it, and they morphed into snakes centuries later.

Know the Difference

Whatever the snake and stick mean, the rod should not be confused with another snake & stick combo: the caduceus, featuring two snakes, a stick and wings, that’s often used as a symbol of medicine in the U.S.

The staff is said to have been that of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods. Hermes did not have a connection to medicine, and the medical use of the caduceus has a very modern origin. The U.S. Army Medical Corps adopted it as their symbol in 1902 at the insistence of a single officer who probably assumed a medical link after seeing it used as a printer’s mark on 19th century medical texts. The mark was used by several publishers in their books because they thought of themselves, like Hermes, as messengers and diffusers of knowledge.

Art historian Walter J. Friedlander, in his book The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine, collected hundreds of examples of both asklepian and caduceus logos and insignias in America and found that professional associations were more likely to use the staff of Asclepius and commercial organizations were more likely to use the caduceus. He noted that caduceus is more appropriate for commercial ventures, since it has more visual impact.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Difference Between Generic and Name Brand Ibuprofen?
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What is the difference between generic ibuprofen vs. name brands?

Yali Friedman:

I just published a paper that answers this question: Are Generic Drugs Less Safe than their Branded Equivalents?

Here’s the tl;dr version:

Generic drugs are versions of drugs made by companies other than the company which originally developed the drug.

To gain FDA approval, a generic drug must:

  • Contain the same active ingredients as the innovator drug (inactive ingredients may vary)
  • Be identical in strength, dosage form, and route of administration
  • Have the same use indications
  • Be bioequivalent
  • Meet the same batch requirements for identity, strength, purity, and quality
  • Be manufactured under the same strict standards of FDA's good manufacturing practice regulations required for innovator products

I hope you found this answer useful. Feel free to reach out at www.thinkbiotech.com. For more on generic drugs, you can see our resources and whitepapers at Pharmaceutical strategic guidance and whitepapers

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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