Move aside, the doctor is driving through!
While walking alongside a street or through a parking lot, do you ever notice the different signs adorning cars? Bumper stickers are the most common and wide-ranging. For example, they might proclaim a real or imagined alumni affiliation, like with The Ohio State University or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Vanity plates abound. You can see dice and high school mortarboard tassels along with rosaries and St. Christopher (the patron saint of travelers) medals on a dashboard. Antenna toppers—like the smiley face—are a great way to find your car in an overcrowded parking lot. Additionally, there are those license plate frames that advertise the automobile dealership where the car was purchased. There are frames with paw prints for dog lovers and palm trees for those wishing for warmer climes, even rhinestone-studded frames in your choice of colors.
We adorn our cars with all kinds of things that hold a special meaning to us. Automobile emblems are signs or advertisements that are attached to the top or bottom of a license plate frame. They have been around almost as long as cars themselves.
The American Medical Association (AMA) advertised this topper in a 1925 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association to licensed physicians for $1.50. It is brass and embellished with a red, white, and green baked enamel design. The symbol of a serpent entwined around a pole is known in the medical world as the Staff of Asclepius, and has long been used by many medical associations as part of their logos. In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the god of healing and medicine.
Why was this topper so special? Unlike vacation-themed toppers that anyone could pick up as a souvenir, the AMA topper enabled physicians to park anywhere without the threat of being ticketed by police. The AMA automobile topper was a symbol of prestige, status, and power, and reinforced the image of physicians as elitist. Dr. Henry A. Bonynge's granddaughter Susan remembers driving around the Virginia countryside with Grampy not having to worry about parking, even when visiting the liquor store.
As Paul Starr wrote in The Social Transformation of American Medicine, physicians were among the first in America to buy cars. The Journal of the American Medical Association early on observed that the use of automobiles enabled doctors to cut time for house calls, thereby increasing the territory and the number of patients they could see.
In a July 1922 article in the Rhode Island Medical Journal, the secretary of the society reported on a request by the AMA to the Providence, Rhode Island, chapter to adopt the AMA car emblem. Cities such as Buffalo, New York, and Columbus, Ohio, established an agreement with city officials that physicians using these emblems had the right of way over ordinary traffic. Another bonus, for those ordering 100 or more emblems: the price was reduced to $1.20 apiece. What a deal!
Judy Chelnick is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.