Is there a doctor in the house?


Joan Rivers tells her audiences that a Jewish mother doesn’t consider her child to have reached maturity until he or she receives the M.D. degree. The claim is either a gross exaggeration or, at the least, a modest stretching of the truth. Back in the 1930s, in the midst of a  world gone awry, Jewish mothers would pray that Roosevelt would be reelected, that Hitler would die of cancer and that their oldest child would be accepted to medical school.

It is not as though those mothers were praying that their child would enter a life of ease. The M.D. degree is granted only after four years of rigorous study punctuated by intervals of self-doubt, despair and insistent feelings of inadequacy. Only after years of additional hospital training do their inner emotions allow them to feel simultaneously ennobled and humbled, powerless yet cautiously capable and gradually aware of the immense resources available to the well-prepared physician.

The newly documented doctor now becomes aware of an immense personal transformation – to some, the experience is vaguely akin to ordination – while not forgetting Voltaire’s comment: “The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while Nature cures the disease.”

Society has always recognized the need to confer special titles upon those assuming great responsibility. Over the centuries, there have been many ways of addressing members of the medical profession, most in terms of respect but some in derision. Amongst these many titles, in English, there are: physician, doctor, clinician, practitioner, and colloquially, medic, doc and leech.

The word doctor, for example, is derived from the Latin docere, meaning to teach. And thus, the word has been applied to scholars in many fields, both healing and otherwise. Learned doctrinal authorities, such as Gregory and Augustine, have been called doctors of the church. A doctorate degree now distinguishes those in non-medical callings from those who have not endured the rigors of graduate study. And so, society is now blessed with D.M.D., D.D.S., D.V.M., Ph.D., J.D., and D.Div. degrees. Is there a doctor in the house? In our advanced society, the answer is – many.

The word physician is derived from a Greek word defining those scholars interested in the natural sciences, including botany, zoology and geology. By the 13th century, the word had been narrowed to the healing arts and its practitioners, the title now spelled physick. And by the 16th Century the word physick had evolved further into the word, physician. (Lady Macbeth’s doctor declares, in sorrow: “More needs she the divine than the physician.”)

During the 17th century, the word physick assumed a somewhat deviant meaning, describing chemicals with medicinal properties, often purgative or, at least, laxative; and in other academic corners of the Renaissance, physick was now applied to the study of the dynamics of matter and energy. This expanding branch of the natural sciences was given the title of physics. The first sentence of the ancient Hippocratic Oath, however, still bears testimony that “physician” was an ancient name for the healer (“I swear by Apollo, the physician…”).

What about practitioner? It is derived from the word practice, doing something habitually. A variant meaning to the word – seeking improvement, perhaps by repetitive exercise – has provided many comic routines about young physicians. “Illness,” said Marcel Proust, “is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promise only; pain we obey.”

Medico seems to be a somewhat pejorative word, much like the word doc. But these names, in the military, define field physicians (or corpsmen) fulfilling a much needed healing role. Their Latin ancestor is medere, to heal.

And, finally, the word leech. It is the name given to the aquatic worm that had been used, over the many centuries, by physicians for blood-letting purposes. The word (now describing a physician) stems from a Gothic term, lekeis, meaning a magician or an exorcist. This mutated into the Old English word laece, meaning a practitioner of medicine.

And so, under a variety of names, and governed by uncompromising regulations, there are now 812,019 licensed physicians with an M.D. degree, in these United States.

STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D. (, a weekly contributor, is dean of medicine emeritus at Brown University.