The Lightning Rod of Esculapius Wood

On Thursday night at 8 pm my son and husband played ukelele and my daughter and I sang in a family rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow‘ on our front porch, as neighbours all around us clapped for our NHS, healthcare and other essential workers. Throughout our village, and around the world, the rainbow has become a symbol of hope and appreciation for front-line workers in the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an article I saw online, the idea originated in Italy just last month, though I’m sure it will now be associated with brave caregivers for many years to come.

Another symbol long associated with medicine and healing is the Rod, or Staff, of Asclepius. If you don’t know the name, you’ll recognise the symbol of a serpent wrapped around a staff. One famous use is in the logo of the World Health Organisation. The Rod of Asclepius is sometimes used interchangeably with the Caduceus, which features two serpents around a staff. Both symbols come from ancient Greece via the Roman Empire. Asklepios (Asclepius) was the Greek god of medicine and healing, who became Aesculapius to the Romans, and is also associated with the Egyptian God Imhotep. The son of Apollo, Asklepios had many children associated with different aspects of the medical arts, including Hygieia, the goddess of cleanliness (hygiene) and Panacea, the Goddess of universal remedy. Asklepios was associated with snakes and a staff, which over time were intertwined in a single symbol of medicine and healing. The Caduceus was carried by Hermes in Greek mythology, and later by Mercury in Roman mythology, though it possibly had its origins in Mesopotamia 6000 years ago. As a symbol of Hermes/Mercury, the Caduceus originally represented trade and communication, not medicine. If you’re interested in this topic, Dr. Timothy Leigh Rogers has a detailed blog post about the confusion between the two symbols in the ‘Battle of the Snakes‘.

From The Battle of the Snakes – Staff of Aesculapius vs. Caduceus, by Timothy Leigh Rodgers, MD

Having worked in the U.S. healthcare industry for 15 years (in marketing, not as a healthcare professional) I can tell you that the Caduceus is the most commonly used medical symbol there. For many years I worked for a company called Epocrates, named after Hippocrates (during the time when all digital companies were adding an ‘e’ to the beginning of words, like ’email’). Hippocrates was a Greek physician who lived 2400 years ago, famous for his ‘Hippocratic Oath’ and often referred to as the father of Western medicine. The Hippocratic oath originally started: ‘I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods …’.

So, now you know your Rod of Asclepius from your Caduceus, allow me to introduce one of my favourite ancestors: Esculapius Simon Jude Wood.

Admittedly, Esculapius (occasionally spelled Æsculapius, and almost always mistranscribed as something nonsensical) wasn’t a blood relation. His only son, Richard Wood, an aptly but boringly named cabinet maker, married my husband’s 3x Great Aunt Florence Saword, in 1895. However, he has such a great name, and was such a great character, that I proudly claim him as one of my own.

Esculapius Wood was born in 1844 in Bradford to James Wood, an electrician and later ropemaker, and Hannah. His siblings had perfectly ordinary names – Frederick, Francis, Charles, Christopher, and Alice.

Many of us have rare and amusing names in our trees, which stand out in a sea of countless Johns and Marys. I must admit I have a habit of logging unusual and funny names that I come across, and often go down a rabbit warren to learn more about an individual just because of her striking name. It would be understandable to assume that these names are only amusing to us in 2020, and that in Esculapius’s lifetime, his classical name, albeit very unusual, would not have raised much of an eyebrow. However, even in his own era, his name was considered so ‘out there’ that it was lampooned in the news!

In 1868, various newspapers ran an article called ‘Queer Yorkshire Baptismal Names’! Poor Esculapius, already a family man by then, was included in this public name-shaming.

Excerpt from ‘Queer Baptismal Names’, Huddersfield Chronicle, Saturday 7 March 1868, p.3, accessed from 11/4/20

When Esculapius married Sarah Anderson in 1866 at age 21 he was a ‘whitesmith’, a metalworker who does finishing work on iron and steel. Later in life, Esclapius was a manufacturer and fixer of lightning conductors as well as a chimney repairer. The principle of a lightning conductor (US: lightning rod) was developed in the late 1700s. Made of conductive metals such as copper, conductors protected tall structures such as church spires from fires caused by lightning strikes, and and were increasingly in demand as buildings became taller. The term ‘lightning rod’ was also in use, and with my marketing hat on I must say I am disappointed that Esculapius didn’t advertise his business as ‘The Lightning Rods of Esculapius’! In 1864, the Newcastle Chronicle reported on the ‘extraordinary climbing and scaling exploits performed by a man belonging to Bradford, who rejoices in the possession of a string of extraordinary Christian names’. It makes for nail-biting reading!

‘”STEEPLE-JACK” OUTDONE’ . Newcastle Chronicle, Saturday 15 October 1864, p,.5, accessed from 11/4/20

In 1869 Esculapius, and his name, made the papers again, when he helped subdue a violent drunken thug who had attacked an old man and a policeman:

GROSS ASSAULTS IN WAKEFIELD ROAD. — At the Borough Court, on Monday, a man named Peter O’Connor was charged with having, early on Sunday morning, grossly assaulted an old man named Jonas Walmsley, of Bolton-place, Wakefield- road, and also with having immediately afterwards assaulted Sergeant Rushforth when in the execution of his duty. Walmsley, whose nose was plastered up, and his face partly discoloured, was on his way home, when he reached the place where the prisoner’s wife and another woman were earnestly advising him to go home, but he, having evidently been drinking and irritated at having had water thrown at him by some person, refused, and in struggling to get free from their grasp fell to the ground, upon which Walmsley remarked, “He will be quieter now.” This roused the prisoner, who started to his feet, knocked the old man down with his head against a wall, and cut him to the bone with a blow across the nose, the blow, the fall, and the effusion of blood for the time completely stunning him. Sergeant Rushforth, who was near, came up and endeavoured to take O’Connor into custody, but the irate Milesian* stoutly resisted his efforts, and they rolled twice on the road together before that could be effected, and then only with the help of a man bearing the classico-medical name of Æsculapius Wood. The case being clear, and the prisoner incapable of making any defence, he was fined 20s. and costs, or twenty-one days’ imprisonment for the assault on Walmsley, and 10s. and costs, or fourteen days’ imprisonment for the assault on Sergeant Rushforth.

(Leeds Times, Friday 24 December 1869 p. 8, accessed from 11/4/20) *Milesian seems to have denoted a native Irishman with a characteristically hot-headed temperament.

So why was Esculapius the bearer of a ‘classico-medical’ name? In 1806, Dr. Abernethy’s household medical book The Pocket Aesculapius was published. The book was advertised in newspapers nationwide throughout the 1800s. This may have made the name more widely known to the masses. As well as the medical association of his first name, he had a middle name ‘Jude’. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Did Esculapius Wood have a narrow escape as a baby, rescued from the jaws of death by a skilled doctor, nurse or midwife?

Google books, accessed 11/4/20

In 2018, I sang in an opera double-bill, which included The Zoo, a comic one-act operetta with music by Arthur Sullivan (later of Gilbert & Sullivan) with libretto by B.C. Stephenson, which premiered in London in 1875. One of the two romantic male lead characters was an apothecary (i.e., pharmacist) called Æsculapius Carboy. He’s a comic rather than heroic character, whose name complements both his profession and melodramatic behaviour. I like to think that Arthur Sullivan read about the bravery and exploits of Esculapius Wood in the papers and was inspired to use the name for his character!

Esculapius Simon Jude Wood died in 1899 and was buried in Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford. His name may have caused mirth in his lifetime, but he was also admired for his courage, both in his work and for his willingness to put himself into danger for his neighbours’ sake. So, if anyone is looking for a baby name, I think Esculapius would be a very unusual but noble choice!

Photo provided by volunteers at Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford

2 thoughts on “The Lightning Rod of Esculapius Wood

  1. Another great story about a man with both an unusual name and occupation. I confess that I hadn’t heard of the name Esculapius before but my children had, due to them both being fans of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.


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