More than one Sailor has wondered why an oak leaf was chosen as the symbol to be used on the insignia for the United States Navy Dental Corps and Medical Corps. Other symbols used to connote medical treatment, especially the intertwined snakes of the caduceus, are instantly associated with medicine and first aid; an oak leaf, not so much. So just how did the Navy end up adopting it as the symbol for both the Dental and Medical Corps, and why was an acorn added to the latter’s final insignia?

The first official mention of an oak leaf being used as a Corps device for medical officers was in 1830, when the Secretary of the Navy issued a General Order for a live oak leaf to be embroidered on the “upper and front edges of the collar and around the cuffs.” The order also specified that the “club of Esculapius” was to be embroidered on the collar. (Note: “Esculapius” is usually spelled either “Aesculapius” (Latin) or Asclepius in English.) Apparently, this combination had been worn since by medical officers since 1826.

But in 1832, another General Order decreed that the staff and serpent—i.e., the “club of Esculapius”—was to be removed from the collar of the dress uniform for Surgeons and Assistant Surgeons, with an embroidery of a branch of live oak to be used in its place. The result was a design that bore an extremely strong resemblance to the collar insignia employed by other staff corps, most notably Pursers. Fifteen years later, this was replaced with a corps device consisting of the letters “MD” in Old English script; this was surrounded by leaves and acorns on the cap badge, with just acorns on the shoulder straps used to indicate seniority.

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The current insignia was settled upon in 1883, but even then it was somewhat shrouded in mystery. Several historians mention another device—a maroon velvet Geneva cross set within a Maltese cross—but all available evidence indicates it was probably a design that was proposed but never adopted. Another rumor is that was inspired by “physician priests” of the Druids, but this is entirely conjecture and falls apart under even the most casual scrutiny.

In the end, it seems that an oak leaf was chosen for the Dental Corps and Medical Corps insignias not because of its relationship to medical care or compassion, but rather its use in Naval Ornamentation going back many centuries. You can find a fascinating analysis of this topic in the November, 1991 edition of Military Medicine.

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