When Did Physicians Start To Be Called Doctors?

When you're sick, you go to a clinic and talk to a doctor. We call all people who treat us, whether the damage is physical or mental, a doctor. But it hasn't always been this way. There was a time not all physicians were called doctor.

Historically, the only people who can be called doctors were those with advanced degrees, explained HistoryExtra. Anyone with a Doctor's degree — what we now call a doctorate — regardless of subject matter, even if it's not in medicine and say in education, was called a doctor.

According to Merriam-Webster, the term doctor became more popular around the 14th century. It was mostly used to refer to teachers, as it stems from the Latin word docere, meaning "to teach." Doctors around the Medieval and Renaissance eras were theologians in the academies, given special permission by the Vatican to preach the church's doctrines. 

Soon, the term extended to other people who have mastered their craft and can impart their knowledge, including medical practitioners. But not all medical doctors referred to themselves as doctors. Often, they preferred to be called a physician, which comes from the French word physic, meaning treatment or remedy, NPR reported. This was during the 12th century, and physicians had to be differentiated from surgeons. Then, surgeons operated on others like today, but physicians were the only ones allowed to administer medicine and other ancient remedies.

The rise of the doctorate

Around the 18th and 19th centuries, more people started using the term as universities began conferring the degree doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). But, since there weren't many fields awarding a Ph.D., this became limited to professions like medicine, law, theology, and sometimes even music. People who had advanced degrees could add letters denoting their degree at the end of their names. These are MD for a medical doctor, PhD for a doctor of philosophy, and JD for juris doctor, or doctor of laws. These days, of course, there's a lot more of those post-nominal letters around. And so, the term "doctor" moved away from teachers and more towards people with more specialized knowledge.

It was also in the 1800s that the field of medicine began to blur the lines between surgeons and physicians. And these physician-surgeons started to seek higher degrees and be called doctors. They wanted to get those MDs and earn that title.

What made things more complicated is that the general public started calling their healers doctors, regardless of any advanced degrees. As long as they were giving out medicine, even if they were pure surgeons without an MD, they were called doctor. As HistoryExtra pointed out, the word doctor also meant to change something — either on an inanimate object or a human body, so it was easy for a patient to call their physicians a doctor.

The title doctor then became shorthand for someone respected and knowledgeable. Someone able to heal people.

It's complicated calling yourself a doctor

Pretty soon, people started taking advantage. Quacks peddling cures called themselves a doctor. And it wasn't just limited to medicine. People who claimed they discovered something new, even it was fake, called themselves doctor just to gain credibility.

According to the London Medical Gazette, in an effort to regulate who could use the term doctor, at least in a medical sense, the Royal College of Physicians declared in 1860 that only those with an MD could refer to themselves as a doctor. It wasn't until the 20th century that this was reversed, with the organization noting the public have called physicians, regardless of degree, a doctor for years.

Calling someone a doctor, though, is fraught with social complexities. Etiquette books from the early 20th century even caution people from using the title Doctor if they weren't sure if the person they're addressing has an MD or PhD. Media outlets also have their own set of rules over the title, with many preferring to refer to medical doctors as doctor.

However, if you have a PhD. or any other doctorate, feel free to use the title. The amount of work, blood, sweat, tears, and years you've put into getting that degree earns you that right. And you have the historical backing to do so. Just, you know, don't raise your hand if there's a medical emergency. You're not that kind of doctor.