Doctor, doctor, doctorate!

In my first post on Alchemical confusion I think I was a little bit too hasty in my dismissal of Campbell’s comment about medicine, doctors and doctorates. To save you having to go look I quoted the following passage with my own embellishments:

Even more bizarre in the following paragraph:

You know which group was also ridiculed, even until the mid-1800s? Medical doctors. Many people thought Harvard was out of its mind creating a medical school in 1782, but they took it seriously and within a few generations medicine had put quacks on the fringes and adopted evidence-based practices. Before then, legitimate doctors were Ph.D.s and Medical Doctors were that other thing that didn’t count. Today, though, if you say doctor people assume you are an M.D.

The whole of this is so mind bogglingly wrong that it is not even worth criticising except to say that if it were written on paper I would flush it down the toilet.

Now I haven’t change my mind on the quality of this little turd of a paragraph but it occurred to me that some of my readers might not understand why I’m so negative about it, not possessing the requisite knowledge of the history of universities and the award of doctorates. However before I explain that I will address the charge of medical doctors being ridiculed.

Now it is true that medical practitioners have been ridiculed throughout history but then again so have scientists and philosophers as well as many others. One of the legends about Thales, supposedly both the first philosopher and the first scientist in ancient Greece, tells how one day he was so obsessed with observing the stars that he didn’t look where he was going and fell down a well. This story was not told to illustrate Thales’ dedication to science. There are many tales by prominent thinkers in ancient Greece and Rome ridiculing physicians but many of those physicians were also highly regarded, had significant social influence and were often wealthy. The same is true of physicians in the High Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period etc. etc. Even today ridiculing medical practitioners is a popular sport amongst journalists and other social commentators. However such ridicule has never had a negative impact on the academic status of medical doctors, which brings us to the real reason why the offending paragraph is total crap.

Universities were a European creation beginning in the twelfth century CE. There had been earlier institutes of higher education in other cultures but what I’m discussing here applies specifically to the European universities as they emerged in the High Middle Ages.  When fully developed the medieval university had four faculties the first of which was the lower or philosophical faculty. Students began their studies in the philosophical faculty whose curriculum was officially based on the seven liberal arts, the trivium – logic, rhetoric and grammar – and the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music (the mathematical theory of proportions) and astronomy. In reality the course consisted almost entirely of the trivium taught on the basis of the works of Aristotle and his commentators. Students who completed this course were awarded a BA degree. Some would now leave the university, those that stayed continued in the philosophy faculty doing an advance course of study much the same as the previous one, which closed with an MA degree. These students were now qualified to teach the BA courses in the philosophy faculty. Those that stayed at the university to continue their studies would now teach the undergraduates whilst pursuing a course of study at one of the three higher faculties, these being the theology faculty, the law faculty and the medicine faculty. Here the advanced student would follow a long course of study passing through BA and MA degrees to finally graduate with a doctorate. The doctoral degrees were respectively doctor of divinity or theology, doctor of law (civil or canonical), and doctor of medicine. The medieval university awarded no other doctoral degrees and certainly no doctorates in philosophy.

This model remained basically unchanged, although with some changes in course content, up to the beginning of the eighteenth century. Newton’s Cambridge, for example, was in essence a medieval university. Being created by Europeans the American universities, of which Harvard was the first, followed this European model. Like their medieval European predecessors they tended to start as a theological seminaries intended to train people for the church.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the German universities undertook a radical reform based on the pedagogical concepts of Wilhelm von Humboldt, as part of this reform they introduced a new doctorate in philosophy the Ph.D.  The first three American Ph.D.s were awarded by Yale University on July 25th 1861.

I can’t comment on Campbell’s claims of opposition to the Harvard School of Medicine and an intensive Internet search has failed to turn up anything on a controversy or similar before, on, or after the founding of this august institution.  There were almost certainly some who were opposed to the project, as there are always some opposed to any major new project that any university undertakes; the money would be better spent on… etc. etc. Whatever the case maybe I’m fairly certain that there was no significant opposition to the proposed school of medicine based on a poor opinion of medical practitioners.





Filed under University History

12 responses to “Doctor, doctor, doctorate!

  1. M Tucker

    Thinking about the study of chemistry, when did chemistry become respectable enough for the universities of Europe? Which university was first?

    • To be quite honest I don’t know but Cambridge has had a chair of chemistry since 1702 and is certainly one of the earliest.

    • If I remember, Marburg was the first, in the early 17th century. Chemistry was never part of the liberal arts faculty, and only first made its way into medical schools of the universities, because of the Paracelsian emphasis on the chemical nature of disease and medicines.

  2. Just going by dates, it seems kind of obvious that Harvard wasn’t breaking new ground in the US. Of the 10 Colonial Colleges, three already had medical schools or programs before Harvard opened theirs.

    That’s hard to square with the idea that medical studies were somehow seen as illegitimate by academics.

  3. Also, just pulling up the biographies of members of the Gresham College Group, a sizeable proportion of them held medical degrees, which would seem to put paid to the idea that other academics held such people in contempt. If anything, I’d guess many if not most of the people involved in early scientific societies held medical degrees.

    • Medicine was indeed a common career path chosen by those interested in natural philosophy in the Early Modern Period. Because of astro-medicine the majority of Renaissance mathematicians were also medical practitioners.

  4. The first three American Ph.D.s were awarded by Yale University on July 25th 1861.

    Interesting. I had read somewhere that J.W.Gibbs was the recipient of the first American Ph.D. in Physics, but your link refutes that. He did receive the first American engineering Ph.D., from Yale, a couple of years after A.W. Wright picked up the first physics Ph.D.

    • According to Wikipedia Gibb’s obtained his Ph.D. in engineering from Yale in 1863. One of the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in America was Christine Ladd-Franklin from Johns Hopkins University in about 1882 but the university refused to award it!

  5. Jeb

    I did a brief search. By utter chance I strayed across Joy Harvey’s paper “History of Science, History and Science, and Natural Sciences:Undergraduate Teaching of the History of Science at Harvard, 1938-1970”

    It struck me as an interesting topic. Her opening sentence reminded me very much of you’re own identification as a local historian.

    I would nominate Lawrence Joseph Henderson as a possible contender for a future birthday post. He seems an interesting man, but I have a soft spot for generalists.

  6. KindleBookReviewer

    Great post! I’ve written something similar myself. Fascinated at how this title came to be bestowed upon medics!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s