Doctor, doctor give me the news…

Meghan Daum, who describes herself as a writer, started a Twitter shit storm by tweeting the following:

Seeing “Dr. Ford” trending reminds me anew of how much I hate when PhDs who are not medical doctors want to be addressed as “Dr.” It undermines authority rather than underscores it. That goes for you, too, Dr. Jill Biden.

Now this tweet is several degrees of bollocking stupid but unfortunately many of the negative responses to it were even more stupid, as they were by people propagating historical knowledge of the awarding of doctoral degrees that was, mildly put, total and utter crap. Before I give a quick historical sketch of university doctorates, I will first describe, what I surmise to be the origins of Ms[1] Daum’s more than somewhat dated take on the subject, which I suspect is largely motivated by wanting to take a swipe at Dr Jill Biden.


With thanks to Charlie Hurnemann

When I was growing up in the dim and distant past, in rural Essex, it was considered polite to address medical practitioners as Doctor irrespective of whether they possessed a MD or not. It was also considered bad etiquette to address non-medical holders of doctorates as Doctor, only the Germans do that sort of thing, if addressing them in writing they were Mr, or somewhat rarer Mrs, with their title appended to the end of their names in the form of the correct initials, D.D., M.D., D.Lit., PhD or whatever. Not being American I can’t be sure, but it is this bygone age that I think Ms Daum (see footnote) is appealing to.

When I moved to Germany, not quite so far in the dim and distant past, I discovered that it is de rigueur to address all holders of a doctoral degree as Doctor. However, medical practitioners, who do not possess an MD, are addressed as Herr or Frau. I don’t know whether this is still true, but the Austrians took it one stage further.  The wife of a man with a doctorate was referred to Frau Doctor, although she did not possess a doctorate. In the classical tradition of sexism the husband of a woman with a doctorate was not referred to as Herr Doctor, if he didn’t possess a doctorate.

However, times have changed and it is now considered correct in almost all countries to address somebody with a doctorate, irrespective of the academic discipline, as Doctor if they so wish it. If the wishes of the holder of the title are not known then etiquette demands the use of the title.

We now turn to the historical horrors on Twitter that have provoked this post. Numerous people claimed that the PhD was older than the medical degree and it was only in comparatively modern times that medical practitioners could even possess a doctorate. This is, I’m afraid to say, complete bollocks and I will now give a brief sketch of the history of the doctorate and its associated title.

As several people correctly pointed out the word doctor originally meant simply teacher, coming from the Latin verb docere meaning to teach. Interestingly the German word for a university lecturer, Docent, comes from the same root. As the European universities began to emerge in the eleventh century CE the term licentia docendi, licenced to teach was applied to somebody qualified in someway to teach at the university. With time a system of qualifications developed at the universities out of which the modern qualification developed over the centuries.

The fully developed medieval university had four faculties the lower or liberal arts faculty and three higher faculties, theology, law (with two divisions, canon and civil law) and medicine. A student started in the liberal arts faculty where he received a general education in the seven liberal arts, the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) this course of studies closed with the BA or baccalaureus atrium, modern Bachelor of Arts. Most students then left the university. Those that stayed continued their education in the same subjects advancing to the MA or Magister Artium, modern Master of Arts, which was now a licence to teach and qualified the holder to teach the undergraduate courses in the liberal arts faculty.

Some MAs were content to remain at this level but the majority enrolled in one of the three higher faculties to study theology, law or medicine. It was this course of studies that now closed with the degree of doctorate in the chosen faculty, qualifying the holder to now teach that subject. So the original three doctorates available at European universities all the way down to the eighteenth century were doctor of theology, doctor of law and doctor of medicine. This is of course a generalised, ideal model of the medieval university and many institutions deviated from it.

Turning to the doctor of medicine, those with a university degree were by no means the only medical practitioners in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period with a wide range of others offering medical services, midwives, herbalists, apothecaries, surgeons etc. In fact most people would not have been able to afford the services of a university educated medical practitioner. Also someone with a doctorate in medicine would have been referred to as a medicus and not as a doctor. It was only in the late sixteenth century that people really began to generally refer to medical practitioners as doctors.

We now turn to the, in our day and age ubiquitous, PhD. The doctor of philosophy degree was first introduced in Germany in the late seventeenth century with 1652 being the earliest know award of the degree. The philosophy refers not to the discipline philosophy but to a much wider range of subjects, philosophy being used as a synonym for the liberal arts. By the nineteenth century this had become a research-based degree at German universities, the earlier medieval doctorates were entirely based on learning. These modern research doctorates PhD, DSc etc. slowly began to become accepted at American and British universities in the late nineteenth century. They still had the taint of something foreign and not quite wholesome when I was growing up in the 1950s and many university lecturers and even professors at British universities in this decade did not possess a doctorate.

Of course, nowadays in academia the doctoral degree in all faculties has become ubiquitous with universities churning out freshly backed doctors of everything under the sun at an alarming rate and if they desire to be addressed by their hard earned title as Doctor then please be so polite and have the decency to do so.

[1] It will come as no surprise to the reader that Ms Daum does not possess a doctorate


Filed under Odds and Ends, University History

7 responses to “Doctor, doctor give me the news…

  1. Gavin Moodie

    Thank you so much for this sterling work.

  2. As an Austrian I can confirm the statement: A wife of a (medical) Dr. has often be called Dr. sonundso instead of Frau soundso – even she had her own degree – in the past until now, but decreasing. There is a famous place in hierarchical/imperial Vienna where the guests automatically get higher degrees like Professor, Hofrat, Ministerialrat, etc. I think Austria, little bit less Germany, has an exuberant history of titles.

  3. theofloinn

    As I recollect, every degree was mention. If X held two doctorates, he was Herr Doctor Doctor X. If he also held a knighthood, he was Sir Doctor Doctor. A friend of mine had two knighthoods in addition to two doctorates and was actually called Sir Sir Doctor Doctor soandso,

  4. D.N. O'Donovan

    Thony, as far as I know, anyone who completes a course of study to the post-graduate level, and is thereafter invited to complete a Master’s dissertation AND finally the Doctoral dissertation (Ph.D. or D.Phil.) and who succeeds in this then becomes a Doctor of Arts, of Sciences, of Theology etc.
    And is entitled to be addressed as ‘Dr….’

    It is because certain people who have a doctorate in one subject (such as engineering or computer science) become a bit over-enthused about the imagined social status thereby gained (and I admit Germans seem to think any doctorate in any topic makes someone omniscient and infallable on every subject from gardening to medieval history to cryptanalysis or rocket science)… that people begin having an equal and opposite reaction to the ‘doctorate’ title.
    At the moment, it’s a particular bug-bear because the rubbish-news stations in the USA have certain ‘Doctors’ who are not doctors in any sense… neither intelligent nor qualified in medicine… and these have been behaving as if qualified to offer advice to the whole of America like ‘dear Jane’ advice-givers. In contrast, we have John Campbell, who is ‘Dr’ by reason of his academic research, and though his doctorate related to biology and health he isn’t a physician.

    (sorry that took so long – but certain Trumpians have been attacking Dr. Campbell whose videos have been so helpful to so many)

  5. Carl Vehse

    In the U.S. there are those who do (and have others) refer to themselves with the title of “Dr.” even though the only doctorate they have received is an honorary one. This is in addition to those who have received (or simply purchased) doctorates from assorted diploma mills.

  6. Fred Henry

    When I began a doctoral program in 1991 at a large and well-known research university in the US Midwest, I was surprised to learn in the first week that the protocol was to refer to our professors (all highly accomplished in the field of anthropology) as Mr or Mrs, not Dr or Professor. In its beginnings the department was influenced strongly by British social anthropology, and counted for a time among its members A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. So that may explain the usage. I’m not sure if other departments adhered to that custom, I think it has long since fallen away. Thank you for the excellent post!

  7. Gavin Moodie

    In Australia the conceit was that physicians were addressed as ‘doctor’ but that surgeons were addressed as ‘mister’. Now dentists are commonly called ‘doctor’ and physiotherapists are claiming ‘doctor’.

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