The Undeserving "Doctors"
In our tangled world of healthcare, a circuitous, hierarchical realm through which, whether as provider or patient, nearly all of us have at one time passed, there’s to be found a peculiar sensitivity to titles. So far as I can tell, it’s a relatively new development within this salutary industry, this business of well-being about which, much to my own frustration (having spent the early years of my inauspicious adult life working in it), nearly everyone must now be exceedingly conscious.
Indeed, so far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing more than a supreme annoyance by which, from a shift’s beginning till its distant end, a poor wretch like me is endlessly vexed. It’s a phenomenon of which, despite the blunted perception of their idle state, not even the comatose en route to the morgue can fail to take note. One might even hope, if only briefly, to switch places with our moribund friend, a refractory body from whom, despite the best efforts of stimulating pills and energizing injections, all perception has been carried away. I would hope for this fate if only to escape the onslaught of so many burdensome titles, but, alas, none is awarded so strong an immunity to the words of our age. Even as one approaches hell or heaven, the depths or the sky, the encroachment of titles will, at last, prevail.
There isn’t a single conversation, regardless of its triviality or the heaviness of its weight, upon which titles fail to intrude. Nor, for that matter, is there an introduction from which they’ll tolerate themselves to be absent. They must, at all times and in every situation, make themselves known and demand that they’ll be acknowledged, remembered, revered. Titles are, in this way, imperious, demanding, haughty, and, to be quite honest, rude; they seek to commander respect with the despotic use of their credentials, and hope, with every fiber of their vanity, to drown the poor listener in an ocean of their inflated pomp.
There is, of course, one title to which all workers in the healthcare industry yet aspire, a lofty honorific carried only by a deserving few. It’s a title before which everyone still bows, a name toward which all approach with modesty and respect. This title, if you’ve failed to guess it, is that of doctor, a designation to which, in reality, only the smallest number of healthcare professionals ought to have a genuine claim.
Nowadays, however, this is far from the case. It seems that just about every occupation by which a typical hospital is staffed feels itself worthy of the title, doctor. To what heights have the egos of the workers filling these jobs ascended? Is the air so thin at that exalted altitude that they can’t breathe the humility of the actual station in which they work and live?
In a word, the significance of the word, doctor, has been quite carelessly diluted. So many have added themselves to its once exclusive pool, a brilliant well of academic achievement and technical acumen, that its boundaries have begun to overflow. Its essence, in the process, is lost in the deluge by which it’s overcome. As a result, it’s meaning is well on its way to being completely dissolved and worth little more than the prescription pad on which it’s written.
Not only is the proud pharmacist a doctor, long removed from the delightfully antique title of apothecary—the name by which his elixir-laden profession once was known—but the physical therapist as well. One is a doctor of medications, the other, apparently, of pandiculations. Is a doctorate really requisite in teaching another to stretch? Is so precious a title required to monitor the rapidity or slowness of one’s gait. I think not, but I digress. The point is, both are doctors and, as such, the real doctor is, in name, debased.
Joining this upper echelon of the anointed, among whom, we’re told, only legitimate doctors have the privilege to mingle, is the clever chiropractor. He’s the man from whom so many vigorous spinal “adjustments” and manipulations are to be had. Close by his side is the inscrutable psychologist, with whom the medically-trained, pill-prescribing psychiatrist, is all too frequently confused. We’re expected, if only in their eyes, to commit ourselves to calling them both doctor, and to believing them to be such, but we’re hardly encouraged to ponder the propriety of the name. If we were, we’d sooner realize how inapplicable a title it is, and it’d quickly fall into disuse.
Let us not forget, in our review of our pretentious hospital’s staff, a group into whose self-importance we’ve busied ourselves in peaking, the dear speech pathologist. She’s the woman by whom the readiness of one’s alimentary canal is carefully gauged, and the delicacy or heartiness of one’s dinner plate suggested. What about the valiant, omnipresent nurse, upon whose wide experience and nimble versatility, so many ailing people rely? Both, all of a sudden, are to be considered doctors, which seems to me an over-compensation for the modesty of their craft. Perhaps it’s all just a means to deepen a patient’s confusion, or to confound a colleague’s address: is nothing more oxymoronic than a doctor of nursing, or a nurse who’s a doctor, who, while draped in a coat of white, isn’t quite the same thing?
The point is, the name doctor, to which all the aforementioned feel themselves somehow entitled, is used in far too promiscuous a way. Neither the pharmacist nor the physical therapist, widely-learned though they may be, should flatter themselves with the application of the name. Though their studies may amount to many years, and their practice to every situation, they’ll never quite amount to being called “doctor”. Nor should the title doctor be affixed before the quotidian, but much more accurate given first and last names of such fine people as the chiropractor, the psychologist, the speech pathologist, or the devoted nurse.
All perform commendable work, but none is a doctor in a recognizable sense. They must, at last, agree to humble themselves with the epithets, Mr., Mrs., or Ms., and the names with which either marriage or birth supplied them. Their demands that we do more ought to be refused.
In truth, there are only three groups of people upon whom, appropriately, the title doctor should be conferred. The first hardly requires my mention, but, given our current confusion on the subject, perhaps it does. The medical doctor, deeply trained in the ability to diagnosis an illness and treat the ailing body upon which it intrudes, is inarguably deserving of the name, doctor. What else would we call so essential a figure upon whose learning and expertise, we’ve come entirely to rely? Could we think of another title for so highly-trained and laudably-selfless a man or woman by whom, too frequently, our over-indulgent, under-exercised society is healed? This person is a doctor, first and foremost. I don’t think this is a position against which anyone in control of his mental faculties would push back. Should he endeavor to do so, we might all agree that he’s in need of the type of doctoral, medical attention by which he’s so little impressed.
The second group of people to whom the title, doctor, is sensibly applied, is that of the doctors, or teachers, of the early Church. The list on which they appear is short, but—irrespective of one’s religious view or lack of faith—widely esteemed. On it, we scan the names of four extraordinary men: Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Of the four, the first three lived as contemporaries in a century in which talent was shockingly rife, while Gregory the Great graced a later date. He, the only pope of the bunch, was a spark of brilliance during the Dark Ages, a time upon which genius rested with only the lightest of touch.
Ambrose, above all, is celebrated for his view on the relationship between the Church and the state—one heavenly and spiritual, the other secular and crude. The independence between the two, of which he was a uniquely early advocate, was as revolutionary an idea then, as their entanglement would be for us today. As the bishop of Milan, a position to which he acceded by way of general acclamation, Ambrose was well-versed in dealing with the powerful political leaders and wealthy businessmen with whom his bustling, commercial see was filled. In every situation, he was their equal, if not their superior, and, because of his efforts, the Church found itself on a most secure and dependable footing.
Perhaps more importantly, he was the man from whom another famous doctor on the list, Augustine, sought advice when he fled the heat of northern Africa and the ardor of his overbearing mother. Augustine, pursuing a career opportunity on the continent of Europe, was not yet ready to relinquish the life of sin to which he’d grown so pleasantly accustomed in the torrid streets of his beloved Algeria. Behind his mother’s back, he travelled to Milan to fill a teaching post in the Italian university’s school of rhetoric. Upon encountering Ambrose, however, he was left utterly speechless. How uncomfortable this must’ve been for a scholar dependent on his tongue for his income? The piety, persuasiveness, and faith of the Milanese bishop provoked Augustine—once he regained his wits—to depart his Manichean flirtation for the splendor of Catholicism. Christian theology was born and, through a revival during the Reformation, remains alive with us today.
The great contribution for which Jerome is responsible is a literary one. Displeased with the obvious shortcomings of the ancient Septuagint, the Greek rendition of the originally Hebrew Bible by which all Christian scholars were perennially vexed, he set himself upon the task of smoothing out its rough edges and refining its ineloquent content. The fruit of his labor was the Vulgate Bible, an immortal work of piety and art of which the Catholic Church still avails herself to this day.
Fourth among the doctors of the Church is Gregory the Great. He’s best known for his copious writings, his liturgical reforms, his failures at asceticism, his missions to convert English Pagans, and his euphonious contribution to the genre of plainchant. The vocal style that’s come to be called Gregorian chant, of which he was the originator and to which he lends his name, is to be heard, unaccompanied by the usual bells and whistles of instrumental music, in the holiest of atria and the most sanctified of places. These are the venues, after all, in which so great a pope is to be found at home.
Our list of people deserving of the title, doctor, is all but complete. On it, two people remain: Dr. Samuel Johnson, Britain’s great lexicographer, author, critic, and wit, and Dr. Benjamin Franklin, the first American man to whom the adjective, “Renaissance” might be affixed.
Like the three churchmen, Johnson and Franklin were contemporaries; in birth, Franklin preceded Johnson by a mere three years, and, in death, he survived him by six. While very similar in this regard, their separation was rather geographical than chronological. Split apart by the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the latter was an eminent Englishman over whom the educated world gushed, while the former was a rising colonist with whom that same world would soon be happily acquainted. Franklin was in the bosom of a revolution against that very mother nation of which Johnson was so proud a son, and their respective impacts during this era can’t be understated.
As just compensation for their scientific, political, and literary efforts, both Franklin and Johnson received honorary doctorate degrees. The former, Franklin, was more promptly recognized and appropriately awarded. In acknowledgement of his contributions to letters and science (his work on the conduction of electricity and the temperate movement of the Gulf Stream had proven milestones in physics and navigation, and his Poor Richard’s Almanac, with all its epigrammatic wisdom, was universally relished), the University of St. Andrews bestowed upon him a doctorate degree. A few years later, Oxford University, that glimmering jewel of English academia, followed suit and did the same.
That school was less willing, however, to elevate her own countryman, Johnson, to that same Franklinian status. Johnson, by far the more accomplished writer of the two, had already finished his famed English Dictionary, his penetrating criticisms of English life, his enlarging annotations of Shakespeare’s plays, his hilarious defense of that divine drink to which he was so sincerely addicted—tea, his didactic History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia from which so many needed morals were derived, and his immortal, satirical poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes. Trinity College Dublin, alma mater of the conservative Edmund Burke, was first to recognize his radical merit. Oxford, as was the case with Franklin, was characteristically late. Ultimately, though, both were made doctors, and so they remain.
In sum, these are the three groups of people, and the only three groups of people, to whom the title doctor ought to be applied: medical doctors, upon whom our physical health hinges; doctors of the Church, by which that of the soul is revived; and Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson, by whom our inner muse is delighted and our scientific spirit restored. All others bearing it, and demanding that they be identified as such, would do well to retire the name and to humble the large vision that they have of themselves. Let us applaud the deserving doctors, or those listed above.