What does the ‘Rx’ sign on doctors’ prescription mean?

When you’ve been advised by your doctor to take a specific medication, it’s hard not to notice the Rx symbol on their prescription pads. Moreover, once you go to the pharmacy, you can also see the sign anywhere. Everyone links the symbol to prescriptions, but what does Rx actually mean and was it linked to medicines?

The first theory suggests that Rx has a Latin origin. Many historians believe that Rx was derived from the “recipere,” a Latin word that means “to take.” It perfectly goes with medicines as we actually “take” them to get well. Physicians from Medieval Europe simply wrote the Rx symbol to save effort and time.

Historians then added that during the late 1500s, “recipere” was changed to “recipe,” which directly referred to medical prescriptions and was widely used by most people. 

However, in the mid-1700s, people began associating the word recipe in food, specifically in meal preparations. Today, we still use the word ‘ recipe’ to refer to the method of how to cook a given meal.

Meanwhile, the use of the Rx symbol on medical prescriptions remained unaltered. Truth to be told, some experts cast doubts on the usage of the Rx symbol during medieval times. But, there were few documents recovered, showing the Rx symbol being used in the same context.

Another theory suggests that the Rx symbol originated from the Greco-Roman era. It focuses on the symbol of Jupiter, a Roman mythological God, which Roman doctors and alchemists may have often inscribed on their medical prescriptions.

But, why did Roman physicians use Jupiter’s sign? There are two explanations given to answer that. The first is that Roman physicians were believed to pray to Jupiter, asking for the wellness and protection of their patients. To again save time, Jupiter’s symbol was written on medical prescriptions instead.

Meanwhile, the other explanation states that writing Jupiter’s symbol was the way of Roman physicians to protest or reject by Christianity. They would write the symbol on their medical prescriptions as their support for the Roman beliefs and religion.

Historians say that the practices were then adopted by European physicians, with Jupiter’s symbol eventually turning into the Rx symbol during the Medieval era.

A different theory traces back to the ancient Egyptian era. A story in the Egyptian mythology tells that God Horus, in his childhood, was attacked by the demon devil Seth. Horus lost his eye, sending her mother crying for help. She was heard by Thoth, the God of magic and learning, and restored Horus’ eyes through his mythological powers. With that, the eye of Horus became a symbol of protection and healing for ancient Egyptians. Their physicians used amulets carrying the symbol on their healing rituals. Both the living and the dead carried them as a sign of God’s help to the sick and suffering.

Even after the fall of the Egyptian civilization, doctors in Europe continued using the symbol. Through time, the eye of Horus then changed to the sign of Jupiter, the chief Roman god, which seemingly appeared like a number four. It also soon changed to the sign we have today – a capital “R” with a diagonal line across its right foot.

Whichever theory is right, what is known is that the practice of pharmacy has been existent for a thousand years. The world’s first prescriptions were inscribed on clay tablets in Mesopotamia, tracing back around 2,100 B.C. Meanwhile, the first pharmacies were erected in ancient Baghdad during the eighth century A.D.

More Readings

Medical Prescription (Wikipedia)

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