There are several representations of the nurse symbol that tell a story about the nursing field. Some of these symbols are associated with Florence Nightingale, who is respected as the founder of modern-day nursing. Some of the most prominent nurse symbols include:

  1. The Caduceus
  2. A nursing cap
  3. The nursing uniform
  4. Florence Nightingale olive-oil lamp
  5. A nursing pledge

The use of these symbols is not as prevalent as it was years before, but they remain relevant in portraying nursing as a service to humankind as discussed below.


Nurse Symbol 1: The Caduceus


Caduceus is a term used for the symbolic image of two serpents wrapped around a staff. The nurse symbol has letters R and N placed on either side of the staff, and those letters are an abbreviation for the title ”Registered Nurse’. The caduceus is a representation of the accomplishment that the students have made by completing school, which is a difficult task that requires much dedication. The symbol is usually imprinted on uniforms or used in signs and logos and has come to be commonly known as the registered nurse symbol.


The origin of the registered nurse symbol dates back to centuries ago and has its roots in the ancient Roman mythology. Since then, the use and meaning of this symbol have undergone much modification by various medical organizations. The symbol of the staff is seen to be the one that was carried by Hermes, the Roman god messenger and he used it as a magic wand. At the upper part of the staff, there were two wings, and there were two serpents winding around it. It has been reported a man in ancient Rome named Tiresias once saw two snakes fighting, then he threw a staff at them and they intertwined themselves around it thus giving rise to the symbol. Immediately after, he was transformed into a woman and remained in that state for seven years until he was able to repeat that same action and change back to a man. The transformative power of the action was passed onto the staff, which was later given to Hermes.

At the time, the serpents represented aspects of wisdom, fertility, and healing. In modern medicine, the image was first adopted by the American Medical Association in 1910.



There has been controversy surrounding the use of serpents in the nursing career whereby it is seen as putting a negative mark on the work done by the professionals. There have been questions of why pioneers in this field chose to use what is seen as a symbol of destruction to stand for wellness and healing. For example, some people have argued that snake bites are generally harmful, so they do not portray the real character of nurses who in most cases are known to be kindhearted. Additionally, the word caduceus can be seen to have been derived from the word ”caduity’ which implies perishable, temporary and senile. This is an exact opposite description of the nursing career which is vibrant and is responsible for restoring health and vitality among human beings. There have also been claims that the symbol is related to the occult.

Proponents of this theory argue that the serpents are a representative of positive and negative energy that moves along the spine to the head where it communicates to the mind.

The people who defend the use of this nurse symbol have also come up with theories to show why it should continue being used in the nursing career. Some argue that snakes have been incorporated in the image owing to their ability to shed skin, thus demonstrating longevity and immortality. Snakes are also able to change from a lethargic state to that of rapid activity. This is an indication that nurses also have the ability to help a patient recover from their illness and resume their normal active life. Another group that defends the decision is the Christian believers who make reference to an incidence in the Bible (Numbers 21: 4-9) when Israelites were attacked by a plague of snakes in the desert. Moses was instructed by God to hold up a serpent coiled around a staff, and all afflicted Israelites who looked at it were healed from the snake bites. They use this to demonstrate that the nurses play a very important role in helping the patients to heal.

Despite all the controversy, nurses still regard this symbol as a mark of pride in what they do. This is based on an understanding that one symbol could be interpreted in many ways by different groups of people.

Nurse Symbol 2: A Nursing Cap


It is usually a white oval headdress with a horizontal black ribbon. Some were however customized according to the nursing school that one attended. The cap was originally designed to keep the female nurse’s hair in place so that they look neat and presentable.

Male nurses at the time were not required to wear a cap. In most nursing schools, the students were presented with the cap on their graduation before they could start their work in the profession. Apart from the functional role of this nurse symbol, it was also a show of the humility and readiness of nurses to serve others. Some people saw it as a badge of honor, and they used it to differentiate between the nursing staff and the non-nursing staff in hospitals.

Today, the nursing cap remains a universal nurse symbol, but it is no longer in use in most parts of the world. It began to disappear in the early 1970s due to various reasons such as:

  • There was a need to introduce a unisex nurse symbol because nursing caps were only meant for women and more men had started joining the profession.
  • Some nurses wanted to be like other professionals in the field who were not required to have a dress code.
  • The caps were uncomfortable since the nurses’ job involves a lot of movement around the workplace. They kept slipping and falling off as the nurses worked.
  • The caps were seen to encourage the spread of microbes and diseases since they were not regularly cleaned like the uniforms

Nurse Symbol 3: The Nursing Uniform


The uniform as a nurse symbol has undergone many transformations over the years to reflect the ever-changing fashion trends. Initially, the nursing uniform consisted of a white apron, a cloak, white nylon stockings, and prophylactic shoes. It was a symbol of how dedicated the nurses were towards serving other people. It was also meant to create a positive public impression and to enable patients to differentiate between different kinds of staff in a hospital setting. These dressing requirements, however, have gradually been done away with.


In the modern setting, a nurse is required to wear medical scrubs, and to put their badges on them for easier identification by patients and other staff members. The scrubs are designed in a way that leaves no opening for bacteria to thrive. They are also loose fitting to allow the nurses freedom of movement. In some institutions that have strict regulations for the dress code, different departments have specific colors of scrubs that the nurses wear. For example, the nurses working in the pediatric unit could be required to wear colorful scrubs decorated in different designs to help put the children at ease.

Other hospitals allow the nurses to wear color scrubs of their choice provided they observe hygiene and keep the identification badges visible at all times. As a nurse symbol, the scrubs today are expected to reflect the seriousness of the profession and the compassionate nature of the nurses as they care for the patients. A proper uniform shows decorum and portrays nursing as the respected profession.

Nurse Symbol 4: Florence Nightingale Olive-Oil Lamp


The lamp is acknowledged as an international nurse symbol. It makes reference to the character of Florence Nightingale who devoted her life towards caring for injured soldiers in the Crimean war. She accomplished this despite tough resistance from her parents who thought that nursing was only meant for servants. She was known as the lady with the lamp because she often visited the soldiers at night to make sure they were fine and comfortable. As such, her lamp came to be associated with goodwill, reliability, and compassion, which are valuable attributes in the field of nursing. In some nursing schools, the lamp used to be lit on the graduation day to welcome nurses to the profession and to remind them of the trust placed upon them by the society. Today, the image of the lamp has been imprinted on the International Council of Nurses logo which can be seen on nursing badges and the cover of some nursing journals and magazines.

Nurse Symbol 5: A Nursing Pledge


The pledge was formulated in 1893 and was partly adapted from the Hippocratic Oath that is usually taken by physicians (Veo, 2010). As a nurse symbol, it tells of the nurses’ commitment towards practicing their profession faithfully and maintaining confidentiality for patient information. It also spells out the consequences in cases where nurses may fail to uphold the code of ethics. The actual words of the pledge have been changed several times, but it has always reflected the professional values that guide the nurses in their work.


Nurse Tattoos

Tattoos have become common among people from all walks of life, and nurses have not been left behind. Nurse symbols are represented both in the real form and in tattoo designs. Most of the work involved in nursing is tedious, but tattoo artists have made a great effort at bringing out the exiting side of nurses through tattoos. Some of the common tattoo designs among nurses include:

  • Caduceus
  • The Red Cross
  • The love symbol with wings to represent angel nurse
  • N for Nurse
  • Heart tattoos

Different schools, hospitals, and healthcare organization have varying policies about the acceptability of tattoos for nurses. Some do not allow visible tattoos, and they require the nurses to cover them up during working hours. They argue that patients, especially from the older generation, may take offense with the body art, and this will lead them to question the competence of the nurses. They restrict visible tattoos to project and maintain a positive image of their organizations.

For those who allow visible tattoos, there are limitations in terms of size and content (Shaw &Timmons, 2014). The tattoos must not be too large or portray a racist or sexually explicit message. They must not be seen to advocate for discrimination on any basis.

Nurse Symbol: Nursing Abbreviations


In nursing, abbreviations are commonly used when keeping records so as to save time and space. Nurses are required to learn some of them during their coursework, but others are learned during the career without training. Here are a few examples of such abbreviations.

  • A&D — Admission and discharge
  • CAD — coronary artery disease
  • CBC — Complete blood count
  • CCU — Cardiac care unit
  • CPR — Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation
  • DX — Diagnosis
  • Gtt — Glucose tolerance test
  • IV – Intravenous
  • L.V.N Licensed vocational nurse
  • Noct — At night
  • PAR — Postanesthesia room
  • Pc — After meals
  • SOB — Shortness of breath
  • Stat — immediately
  • U/A — Urinalysis
  • VS — Vital signs
  • WNL — within normal limits

Nurses use these abbreviations in the course of their work when communicating with their colleagues, and when educating the public on health matters. However, they have some disadvantages because the abbreviations can have different meanings in different contexts, and this may be confusing.

Nurse Ratched Symbolism

It has become common for individuals to refer to each other as Nurse Ratched but as a way of insult. This nurse symbol is a reference to a fictional character in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was later adapted into a film. The character was a cruel, overbearing, and perfectionist nurse who wants all people in the mental ward to behave according to her set standards. She casts nursing in a negative light because she worsens the mental health of her patients with her acts of tyranny instead of making them feel better. The symbol portrays the characters that nurses should not exhibit in their career.

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