Why are physicians in the UK called "Doctor" when they aren't?

I always assumed that physicians were commonly called doctors because they were the most commonly encountered higher-degree holders in most people’s experience. (Especially in pre-modern and medieval society where few people outside of clergy were univeristy-educated.) But of course, the basic medical degree in the UK is a bachelor’s degree, not a doctorate.

I know that the American MD and the British MBBS are entirely equivalent and the difference in terminology is merely accidental. I also know that neither degree is the same as a PhD, which some people hold as the benchmark for a “real” doctorate.

At least in the US it makes sense - the set of people addressed as “Doctor” is nearly identical with the set of people holding degrees that end in “D.” Why is it different in the UK? Why isn’t the medical degree called a doctorate if its holders get to be called “Doctor”? (Or vice versa, why are they called “Doctor” if they don’t hold an appropriately named degree?) Is the American-style MD an older form? Did physicians used to be actual doctors in Britain?

The British medical qualifications, MBBS or MB BChir (and there are several others which I cannot remember), are actually two bachelors degrees, not one. One in medicine and one in surgery.

There is an “MD” here in the UK, it’s higher research degree, equivalent of a PhD.

I think this Commons debate recorded in Hansard answers your question.

The title “Doctor” in the UK has never been reserved for the sole use by holders of higher degrees, and it’s use is as defined in the OED. It’s essentially a courtesy title with regard to medical practitioners who do not hold PhDs or MDs (although surgeons are not addressed as “Doctor” but instead “Mister” “Missus” or “Miss”).

I think that’s true of Scotland. Didn’t this come up on ER when Elizabeth Corday was introduced and kept confusing patients and staff by introducing herself as “Miss Corday”? Do British surgeons not call themselves doctor?

Well, you can’t call an entry-level British medico “Mister.” Only surgeons are called mister.

[QUOTE=alphaboi867;10269112 Do British surgeons not call themselves doctor?[/QUOTE]

That’s correct. Surgeons here are never addressed as “Doctor” but instead as “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Miss” or “Ms”.

They are, however, addressed as “Professor” when granted that title by a university.

Same in NZ – seems to be Commonwealth usage: Dr. Brown (the GP / local doctor) writes you a referral to Mr. Smith (the specialist surgeon). This probably has something to do with surgeons originally being barbers. :wink:

Wait…to be a doctor in the UK, you only need to go to school for four years? Or do the bachelors degrees take longer? (Although I guess if you need one in medicine and one in surgery, it could take eight years?)

I guess your question could also be why are physicians in the US known as “doctor” at all? Looking at the second quoted sentence above, I’d point out that lawyers in the US get a J.D… There are 500k+ lawyers in the US, and only about 300k physicians, so your premise is a bit flawed. Most people in this country who get degrees with the word “doctorate” in them aren’t called “Doctor.”

Of course, as you point out, both the J.D. and the M.D. are not doctorates but professional degrees, so technically, neither one should be called doctor.

Cite for the numbers

Okay, I clearly misread those numbers (there are a lot more physicians than that), but the point remains valid: there is a pretty substantial number of people with professional “doctorate” degrees who don’t go by “Doctor” in this country.

You spent heaps of time in med school so you can be called Doctor, and then spend some more there to be called Mister. It’s very strange.

Well, yeah. I assumed physicians are called doctors because they were. And according to alphaboi, in Scotland they were. But IS that why they are called doctors? Maybe not.

I thought about mentioning JDs, but physicians have been university educated and been called doctor for centuries. It’s also a stereotype that the one person in a small village until recently who was sure to be university-educated was the physician. The JD is a modern degree, and lawyers weren’t as ubiquitous 200 years ago as they are now (were they?).

Lawyers have always been ubiquitous. For instance, of the professions that made up the National Convention in France in 1792 the greatest proportion consisted of lawyers.

There are three partially related uses of the work “doctor” in effect:

  1. A courtesy title for a learned man (from the Latin for “teacher”).

  2. A title for a person holding a doctorate degree, which was the first type of college degree. In effect, all persons with a degree were “doctors.”

  3. A title for a professional.

Re 2: I thought a Master’s was the first degree. But the terms master and doctor were interchangeable at first, weren’t they?

Re 3: Do you mean a member of the medical profession or any professional? I’ve never heard lawyers or architects called doctor. Nor ministers, unless they have a doctorate.

Here’s the link to the MBChB course at my old university…clicky and a wiki link about the degree…clicky.

The degree, as mentioned is actually two bachelors;

  • MB = Bachelor of Medicine
  • ChB = Bachelor of Surgery

It’s a 5 year course after which you then spend a year as a House Officer before you are fully registered, so it’s pretty much 6 years in total.

The title “doctor” is an honorary one, same with Dentists who actually earn a BDS degree (Bachelor of Dental Surgery) but are known as “doctor” too. As the wiki link points out the MBChB and MBBS degrees were the ones originally given out in the US but that was changed later to follow the MD style degree.

The labs I did my postgrad at was at our universities dental school and we spent a lot of time with the medical students too, there was a fair bit of piss taking along the lines of “well, at least when we finish our degree we’ll get to be a real doctor” from the postgrads to the medical and dental students. All just for a laugh though :wink:

I know some medics in Edinburgh (a big medical school in the UK). They generally spend five or six years as an undergraduate. The ones who spend six years usually do so because they are getting a second undergraduate degree, usually a BSc in Medical Biology, Immunology or something similar.

Further, being fair to them, it’s not like they have the same workload as e.g. an English student. It’s five years of working 12+ hours a day. When they haven’t got any set homework, they’re always studying, and their summer holidays consist of hospital work.

But then, even after graduation, they still aren’t full doctors, as I understand it. Rather, they only become fully fledged doctors after another few years work in a hospital.

It’s the same with vet students, as well.

As an aside, there’s quite a few PhD students (who I know of) who get really pissed off that medics with undergraduate degrees can call themselves doctors. It’s quite funny.

It depends, as I mentioned above I studied with the medics and dentists throughout my undergrad and postgrad. Whilst we might have taken the piss out of them a fair bit, it was all just for a laugh. I know how much work the medics and dentists put in and have never had a problem with them using the title. I think the postgrads that get upset are, a) way too far up their own internal cavities and b) don’t understand just how much work the medics and dentists have to put in to get their qualifications.

And, of course, many people who would be called ‘Professor’ in America do not have the same title in Britain, it only applying to the more senior university positions.

The majority of people that would be Profs in the US are called “Readers”, aren’t they?


When my boss became a Prof, it was a HUGE deal. He was actually president of 2 major european medical societies, long before he got his prof title.

I notice that here in the US, lots more people seem to be addressed as "doctor"than I remember in New Zealand. Dentists, optometrists and vets are all called doctor. It’s probably quite correct in terms of their qualifications but it still seems overly formal.