On “Dr. Jill Biden” & Medical Status Anxiety

The ignoramus who wrote in the WSJ about Jill Biden not being a real doctor (because she isn’t a physician, but holds a Doctor of Education degree) and the ignoramuses who allowed it to run don’t understand two basic data:

1) “Doctor” means “teacher.” It has nothing to do with medicine.

2) Physicians, who until quite recently (with the advent of safe analgesics, anaesthetics, and antiseptics) harmed patients as often as helped them, have been engaged in a century-plus-long campaign of status elevation.

Physicians, that is, were understandably concerned that people wouldn’t trust them. So they engaged in a “culture of display” that we all now take for granted, and especially two features: conspicuous mounting of diplomas and insistence on being called “Doctor.”

If you’ve hung around universities as long as I have, you find out that so-called doctorates like the ridiculous Juris Doctor given to lawyers as well as the MD are called undergraduate degrees by people on the faculty since they are first degrees in the field. So not all doctorates are the same, that’s for sure (in Canada that first law degree is properly labelled a Bachelor of Laws).

You’ll notice, by contrast, that physicists often can’t even find their doctoral diplomas in their messy offices. Nobody doubts their status on the university campus.

So, yes, Jill Biden, Ed.D., is a doctor and should be addressed as such.

Postscript: Robert Maynard Hutchins, legendary (and flawed) president of the University of Chicago, is supposed to have instituted a campus rule that everyone was a fellow scholar and learner, so everyone would be addressed as “Mr./Mrs./Miss” (nowadays, of course, including “Ms.”). Thus my own doctoral supervisor, Martin Marty, who earned a PhD at that university and was awarded literally dozens of honorary doctorates, was “Mr. Marty” and I was “Mr. Stackhouse” as his student.

Only the physicians objected, and so on this campus of world-class PhD’s, only the nervous physicians were addressed as “Doctor.” (It would be cute if it weren’t so sad.)

Post-postscript: My late and beloved father was a highly credentialed surgeon: John G. Stackhouse, MD, CM, FRCS(C), FACS, FICS. His diplomas were indeed displayed in his office for all to see and be assured that the person whom they were to trust as he stuck knives into their abdomens (or elsewhere) knew what he was doing. And I would want that assurance as much as they next person. And I have scrutinized the credentials of physicians new to me to get some sense of how likely they were to be competent. All of that is fine. It just doesn’t exclude the other actual doctors (PhD, ThD, EdD) from expecting to be addressed properly.

Post-post-postscript: My late and beloved mentor David Martin used to quip that “Doctor” is what you earn when you’re young and “Professor” (especially in the British sense of what we North Americans call “full professor”) is what you earn when you’re older, so forget calling me “Dr. Jones”: It’s Professor Jones to you, bub.

Please make a note of it.


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