Are Physicians Really Doctors?
Letters to the Editor Thursday, June 1, 1995

Are Physicians Really Doctors?

In response to Christopher Caldwell's May 4 editorial-page essay "Is There a Doctor in the House?" Mr. Caldwell is dismayed that there are so many academics these days who insist upon being addressed as "doctor," when that title properly belongs to physicians.

Mr. Caldwell has it backward.  Derived from the Latin verb docere, meaning "to teach," the word doctor means "teacher" or, by extension, "scholar."  It most assuredly does not mean "physician."  From Roman times through the Middle Ages until well into the 18th century, the honorific doctor applied only to eminent scholars - e.g., the Four Doctors of the Western Church in the 5th and 6th centuries (Saints Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, and Gregory); and Martin Luther, known to his supporters and detractors in the 16th century as Doctor Luther.

Jealous of the respect shown to scholars by the title doctor, medical schools in the 18th century (particularly Edinburgh in Scotland) began the practise of addressing their graduates as "doctor."  The schools argued that since their graduates generally earned bachelor's degrees before admission to medical studies, they were entitled to the honorific in the same manner as university scholars.

Mr. Caldwell's biases clearly show when he refers to "churn[ing] out 42,000 non-medical 'doctors' a year" or "you cannot become a real doctor in less than a half-dozen years of medical school...."

Ph.D. recipients may well be nonmedical, but they are most assuredly doctors in the fundamental and historical meaning of the word, more so than any M.D. can hope to claim.  Moreover, Mr. Caldwell clearly has little idea of how long it takes to earn a Ph.D., certainly in the humanities, such as literature, history and philosophy.  The average tends to be eight to 10 years, significantly more than the four years (not his half-dozen) it takes to earn an M.D. degree.  And unlike first-year medical students who are encouraged to identify themselves to patients as "Dr. Jones" or "Dr. Smith" a Ph.D. student at any level would be severely criticized by his mentors were he to use the title "doctor" without first having earned the degree.

Mr. Caldwell talks about "subsidized postgraduate education ... for those too lazy or incompetent to compete in the workplace."  That is absolute balderdash.  Ph.D.-level academic work takes as much time on a daily basis and, in some ways, creates more individual stress than M.D. training. It certainly requires more originality.  And, insofar as competence - or incompetence - is concerned, what does he mean?  I would certainly question his fundamental journalistic competence as an editor in making such a statement.  Most people who enter Ph.D. programs, especially in the liberal arts, know full well they can never hope to achieve the salary levels that even mediocre M.D.'s receive early in their careers.  These are people who in many cases could do just as well in law or accounting or business or even medicine, but who consciously decide to pursue a career of teaching and scholarship, the career of a real doctor.

Richard M. Sherman

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