Health vs. Wealth

Why does this mailbox, in the lobby of 111 Sutter Street, have a medical symbol on it?

When this building was built in 1926,  this symbol, the Caduceus, the staff of Mercury, meant communication and business, not health. Mercury is the messenger of the Roman gods, and his staff was used to as a symbol of  travel, communication and  business.  Words  like merchant, commerce and even mercenary all derive from Mercury.

Mercury welcomes you to 111 Sutter St.
The true medical symbol is the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, which is a rod with a single snake wrapped around it – no wings.   The snake, which sheds its skin, is a symbol of rebirth or renewal -- thus healing.  Also, in ancient times, parasitic worms were common, and were removed by catching one end of the worm and winding it around a stick.   

So why do most Americans associate the winged Caduceus with medicine?

In1902, a single misinformed officer in the United States Army insisted that Mercury's caduceus symbol be used on the uniforms of medical staff.   During WWI and WWII an entire generation of Americans learned to incorrectly associate the winged Caduceus with medicine.

Today, the Caduceus is most often used in military or commercial settings, while the staff of Asclepius is used by professional or  non-profit groups.  Check out the logos of the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, for example.  Both  use the correct symbol.

The building at 110 Sutter Street (shown below) is often called the Medical Dental Building but was in fact occupied by the French American Bank when the Caduceus was added to the front of the building in 1913.

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