What Is a Doctor?

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Exactly what does doctor mean, and who can call himself or herself a doctor, and who can’t? A discussion of the term and its origins and parameters follows.

Doctor derives from the Latin verb docere, meaning “teach”; it is also the origin of docent, originally an adjective but now almost invariably used as a noun to refer to a museum or art gallery tour guide (although it also denotes a university instructor who is not a professor), and docile, which originally meant “easily taught” but by extension now refers primarily to obedience and submissiveness. Document, which referred originally to a lesson but now denotes any written proof or evidence, or, by extension, any written content, is also related, as is the noun doctrine, meaning “teaching.” (Someone with strict, narrow beliefs, or such beliefs themselves, is referred to as doctrinaire.)

The original doctors were what we now call professors or teachers; those who taught anatomy, medicine, and other health-related disciplines inspired the word to be used as a title for a specific class of professionals who practice medicine. However, it still also denotes someone who has obtained a research doctorate and is entitled to use the initials PhD (often styled in the older form Ph.D. as well), which stands for “doctor of philosophy.” (Originally, philosophy, meaning “love of wisdom,” referred to a wide array of what we would now call the arts and sciences and only later pertained strictly to the study of knowledge, truth, and life.)

Those who hold a doctorate and work in the medical field but do not have a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathy (OD) degree are generally required to advise patients that they do not hold one of these degrees. (An osteopath—the word is from a Greek term meaning “sensitive to or responding to bone”—is in the United States qualified to practice medicine just like someone with an MD degree, but in other countries such a practitioner is more limited in scope.)

Many other medical practitioners, such as chiropractors, optometrists, pharmacists, and physical therapists, receive doctorates but may not use the title of Doctor, usually abbreviated Dr., before their names or refer to themselves as doctors. However, people who have received a PhD and work outside a medical context, including lawyers, whose degree is a doctorate, are free to use the word or the abbreviation.

By convention, those who have earned an honorary doctorate do not address themselves with the term or its abbreviation, although some have done so, ranging from the lexicographer Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century to writer and activist Maya Angelou in more recent times.

A surgeon is a doctor who performs operations. Surgeon—and the word for the surgeon’s practice, surgery—derive ultimately from the Greek term kheirourgos, meaning “working by hand”; the intermediate Latin form was chirurgia. The first element in those classical forms is the same as seen in chiropractor, a word coined at the turn of the twentieth century to refer to a specialist in manipulating the skeletal system as a form of physical therapy; the technique is called chiropractic. (The second part of the words derives from the Greek word for practical.) The second element in surgeon and surgery, referring to work, is related to the prefix ergo-, as seen in ergonomics, as well as to the word organ.

Physicians are generally distinct from surgeons in that they specialize in treatment by medication rather than operation, but there is some overlap; the word, which comes from Greek by way of Latin, means “study of nature,” and physical and physics are related.

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10 thoughts on “What Is a Doctor?”

  1. Those who hold a doctorate and work in the medical field but do not have a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathy (OD) degree…

    Actually, doctors of osteopathy take the post-nominal, DO. The suffix OD is used (at least in the US) by doctors of optometry.

  2. @Jacquelyn Lynn: “…but may not use the title of Doctor,…”

    I took that to mean “might not”, as in “could choose not to”, as opposed to “are not allowed to.” Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t think anyone really polices this stuff except maybe organizations internally.

    Anecdote: I recall a man who worked for a US government agency back in the 70s. He purchased– literally– a “doctorate” certificate from some place. He hung it in his office and began seriously insisting that others in the workplace address him as Dr. Soandso; added it to his stationery, etc. It went on for a while and was just considered humorous and eccentric by most, but at some point someone “up above” in the agency told him to stop, and he did. I have no idea who told him to do it or what if any reason was given.

  3. I’ve known many optometrists and chiropractors who refer to themselves as Dr. Smith. If this isn’t allowed, who is doing the policing?

  4. It would be interesting to know some of the sources for this information. Some of the points seem to overreach: (1) Where is a “university instructor who is not a professor” called a docent? I’ve spent 4 decades teaching in universities in and outside of the U.S. and have never heard this usage. (2) PhD is one style of giving the title of the degree “doctor of philosophy;” Ph.D. is simply another style, not an “older form.” Many of us still give our degrees in this manner on formal documents and many style books still use the form with periods. (3) It seems an odd claim that medical practitioners other than MDs and ODs “may not use” the title of Doctor. It is fairly common for pharmacists to be called “Dr.” (my family has pharmacists running back to 1910 and they were all called Dr. in the community) and since in the U.S., pharmacists are now required to earn a doctor of pharmacy degree, it makes sense to use that now. Commonly dentists, chiropractors, and optometrists are referred to with the title “Dr.” People who hold Ed.D (doctorate in education), PsyDs (doctorate in clinical psychology), and others commonly and appropriately are called Doctor/Dr. High level nursing administrators are now being required to have doctorates as well, which would entitle them to use the title. It would be unusual for lawyers to be referred to as Doctor, even though the have a juris doctor –it is a fairly controversial practice even from the point of view of the American Bar Association (a 3-year law program is not quite the equivalent of a 6 or more year Ph.D. or med school plus internship).

  5. Benjamin Franklin, a American who lived in England** for a long time, was awarded honorary doctorates (for his accomplishments in electricity, lightning, etc.) by two different universities in England. He was frequently referred to as “Dr. Franklin” both in Europe and in America. Franklin also lived in France for a long time as an American diplomat to the Kingdom of France.
    Dr. Samuel Johnson was mentioned in the article, but the use of “Dr.” and “doctor” to address such people has died out over the hundreds of years since those two were living.

    **Dr. Franklin was a trade representative selected by Pennsylvania to promote the interests of Pennsylvania in Great Britain.
    Franklin voyaged across the Atlantic many times, going to and from England and France, but his wife, who was born and raised in America, refused to go with him even once because she was afraid of ships and the ocean.

  6. You need to be careful about the words “instructor” and “professor” because in some countries such as New Zealand**, the rank of “Instructor” in universities and colleges is equivalent to “Assistant Professor” in the United States and Canada.
    Instructors in New Zealand, etc., usually hold a Ph.D. or equivalent degree, but this is not necessarily so in North American. I have been an “instructor” here with my master’s degree in engineering, and even an “assistant professor” at a small college.
    **I don’t know the situation in Australia, South Africa, Kenya, Malaysia, and so forth.

  7. Pharmacists in France and several other countries are required to hold a “Doctor of Pharmacy” degree, however you say that in French.
    A Doctor of Pharmacy degree in France, the United States, Canada, etc., requires six to seven years of college-level study.
    It takes the same lengths of time to get the degrees of Doctor of Optometry, Doctor of Dental Surgery, or Doctor of Medical Dentistry.
    By the way, the first college of scientific dentistry was established in Baltimore, Maryland, and it still exists.

  8. @Cygnifier: We in the medical field, where we have “real” doctors, used to joke that anyone who had a PhD was a “phake” doctor.
    I think a lot depends on context. For example, someone who has a PhD in literature should probably not introduce herself to people as “doctor” in a hospital, without some further explanation, to avoid confusing patients and staff alike. While I’m sure she is very proud of her doctorate, it could cause a problem in a medical setting.
    I have a friend who is a doctor, and was career military, having achieved the rank of Colonel before deciding to retire. When he would be out and about in civilian areas (like picking up something at the cleaners, or checking into a hotel), he never mentioned his title(s), and when the clerk would say, for example, “Thank you, Mr. Smith,” or “Have a nice day, Mr. Smith,” he would absolutely never “correct” them, as I have heard some people do. I like modesty in a man 🙂
    At the temple I attend, we have various people who lead services, chant Torah readings and so forth. When our names are listed in the weekly bulletin, people who are medical doctors are listed as “Dr. So-and-so,” whereas other kinds of doctors and the rest of us non-doctorate folks don’t get any title at all (not even Ms or Mr), even if we have other degrees. I personally don’t want a title before my name, but IMHO, in temple, nobody except someone integral to the temple should have a title before his/her name. In temple, the people whose titles matter are, for example, the Rabbi, the Cantor, and a few others. Everyone else is just…everyone else. The fact that in the outside world they are doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, PAs or bottle-washers is irrelevant when they are up there leading a service. Oddly enough, when an attorney gets up to do anything, he/she is not listed as “John Doe, Esq,” so why they put the “Dr” title there for medical doctors is a bit of a mystery. By the same token, a cantor who goes to pick up his dry cleaning probably doesn’t give his name as “Cantor Smith.” Unless…well…yes there are some people with big egos.

  9. “Many other medical practitioners, such as chiropractors, optometrists, pharmacists, and physical therapists, receive doctorates but may not use the title of Doctor, usually abbreviated Dr., before their names or refer to themselves as doctors.”

    WHAT????? I don’t believe this is entirely accurate.

  10. Yes, this article is dated, as a physical therapist with a doctorate in physical therapy and no I don’ t prescribe medicine, not every ailment/problem/condition requires, in fact many don’t, need medicine to improve their health. Many low back pain problems require exercise, often balancing of muscles in the hips, to treat their back problems, not medicine. Thus, a doctor, is not just an MD or DO or for that matter DDS, DMD, or OD, its the education, the unique body of knowledge, and the specialization of profession that qualifies a person as a Doctor
    Signed: Dr. Michael C

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