Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A doctor in the house?

Our culture has pretty much resolved the dilemma of whether to refer to a woman as Miss, Mrs. or Ms. by simply using her first name or, in the case of most newspapers and other media, her last name, regardless of her age or social position. In this country we are all now on a first-name basis.

All, that is, expect doctors and a few others (teachers, coaches, judges, senators, etc.), who are still known by their titles. The title of Dr., however, seems to create the most problems of any of them. Who deserves the title and who doesn't?

While reading Ethan Mordden's Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business recently, I noted that Flo Ziegfeld's father, an immigrant from Germany, liked to be called Herr Doktor Ziegfeld. He was not a medical doctor, but rather a piano teacher in Chicago. In 19th century Germany the title of "herr doktor" was a term of respect, not an indication of any advanced degree.

We have mostly left that sort of thing behind us, but there is still the matter of honorary degrees awarded by colleges and universities each June to distinguished people. Some honorees take the degrees as they were intended, simply as honors. Others seem to have accepted the honorary degrees as the real thing and place a Dr. in front of their names. Among these have been Ralph Stanley, Billy Graham, Maya Angelou and Hunter S. Thompson. Benjamin Franklin liked to call himself Dr. Franklin, although all three of his degrees were honorary.

College students soon get used to putting a Dr. in front of their professors' names. Throughout my four years at Ohio University in the 1960s, I often found myself hanging out in the home of Gerald and Pauline Franks, a wonderful couple originally from England who welcomed students into their home near the campus. He taught Russian at the university, and we all called him Dr. Franks. Years passed before I learned that he didn't actually have a doctorate, but neither he nor his wife ever corrected us. Perhaps they had just given up, realizing students would call him Dr. Franks anyway.

At the newspaper where I worked for more than 40 years, our style called for using the title Dr. only for medical doctors. University professors and others with doctorates were just called by their first and last names, like everybody else. This always seemed unfair to me, yet I understood the rationale. Most people, when they see the word doctor, think of someone with a medical degree. My late father-in-law had a doctorate in chemical engineering. I imagine he was asked for free medical advice on occasion.

Earlier this year two bills were introduced in the Florida Legislature to make it a felony if nurses with doctorates in nursing fail to clearly inform patients that they are nurses, not doctors. This seems excessive to me. In my experience, nurse practitioners already do a very good job of making it clear they are not doctors. For one thing, they invite patients to call them by their first names, something doctors almost never do.

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