It is easy to find a pharmacy in France. Just look for the Green Cross.
But why a cross? And why green? It was registered as one of the two symbols for exclusive use by pharmacies in 1984.
The second symbol is a snake twisting round a bowl on a stem which was first adopted by the Conseil Supérieur de la Pharmacie in 1942.
The green cross was originally coloured red on a white background, or white on a red background, and was chosen because of its association with the Red Cross charity, which was founded in 1864.
Many pharmaceutical manufacturers used the red or white cross on their product packaging and some pharmacies put red crosses outside their shops.
However, in 1913 a law was introduced to stop this practice because of confusion with the charity, and the colour green was introduced. Nevertheless, neon red crosses could still be seen on High Streets in the 1950s, as some pharmacists preferred this symbol, even if they were flouting the law.
It was a group of Toulouse pharmacy owners who faithfully followed the law and changed their sign, but they found themselves in court because a chemist and herbalist which had already called itself A la croix verte was furious to have its legally registered name used by others.
The Tribunal found in its favour. The chemist still exists but now has to share its symbol with all other pharmacies across France.
The Greek cross with four equal branches has been known as a symbol for first aid and military and civil protection since the Crusades. When the Red Cross was created, the first aiders who went to bring the wounded out of the battlefields needed an internationally recognisable symbol.
The Red Cross chose to invert the Swiss flag to reflect Switzerland’s neutral status, and it was also appropriate, because the Red Cross was founded by a Swiss citizen, Henry Dunant.
Firing on anyone carrying a white flag has always been seen as unacceptable as they are associated with surrender and red against a white background is easily visible.
When pharmacies had to change colour there are two theories as to why they chose green; either because many medicines are plant based, or, because in the 18th and 19th centuries military pharmacists wore green armbands.
The bowl and snake symbol is widely used by pharmacies, not only in France. It was first used in the 13th century by pharmacists in Padua, Italy, and has its origins in Greek mythology.
The snake belonged to Asclepius, son of Apollo and god of medicine, and the bowl belonged to his daughter, Hygieia, god of health who myth has it, gave water to a snake from her bowl.
The symbol first appeared in France in 1820 on a token engraved for the Société de Pharmacie de Paris (see photo above).