Amongst the General Medical Council records of 300 medical specialties hides “physician”, a word we all use with but little thought about its origins.
Samuel Johnson defined physician as one who professes the art of healing.1 He also included physician as A man skilled in any profession; or Any able or learned man—a use comparable to the recent extended use of “Doctor” by some dentists and pharmacists.
Johnson’s ironic wit and wisdom surpassed that of other lexicographers; he quotes Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens:
Trust not the physician,
His antidotes are poison, and he slays
More than you rob.
And Bacon in his Essays noted that some physicians are so conformable to the humour of the patient, as they press not the true cure of the disease, and others are so regular, as they respect not sufficiently the condition of the patient.
The word physik stems from the Greek physika, from physis (growth, pertaining to nature), from phyein (to produce or bring forth). In Latin, physica meant natural science, which in Old French was phisique.
The root word physic had three different but related contexts.
- I. In the 14th century, it related to the art or practice of healing disease;
- II. It was also applied in its modern sense to the profession of medicine;
- III. It evolved to mean any medicinal agent for treating symptoms (often a purgative) or disease.
Chaucer in “The Knight’s Tale” (c. 1385) related, “Farewel, phisik, go ber the man to cherche.” Shakespeare uses the term in Coriolanus III.ii: “The violent fit o’th’ time craves it as physic.”
The safety and efficacy of the physician’s practice were not universally accepted. John Locke observed: “Were it my business to understand physick, would not the safer way be to consult nature herself in the history of diseases and their cures, than espouse the principles of the dogmatists, methodists or chymists.”
Between the 13th and 15th centuries, physician was variously spelt fisiciens, fecicisians, or phesycyen.
The separate science of physics had the same origins but related to matter, energy, and the study of forces such as heat, light, sound, pressure, gravity, and electricity. In Aristotle, it is the science of phusis or physis qv.
The words “medicine” and “doctor” though of ancient origins are now more familiar. Medicine appears in the 13th century an alternative to physic. The Latin medicīna meant healing, the feminine of medicīnus pertaining to both a physician and to any substance used to remedy illness.
Doctor comes from the Latin docere (to teach). It appears in Middle English. From c. 1577, it is found as “doctorate” given to those attaining a higher academic degree (as MD, PhD, LLD). Dr. Samuel Johnson* described “One that has taken the highest degree in the faculties of divinity, law, or physick. … a man so well versed in his faculty, as to be qualified to teach it.”
Surgery and surgeon derive from Middle English cirurǧien or surgien, from the Greek chiron (a hand which effects surgical skills). Chiron or Cheiron in classical mythology was a wise centaur, teacher of Achilles, and the god who instructed Asclepius, son of Apollo and Coronis, who was the god of medicine in Greek mythology.
Obstetric as an adjective was used in 1742, and as a noun the Lancet of 1826 reported: “Both must study obstetrics and forensic medicine.” The word is from Modern Latin obstare, literally to stand opposite (the woman giving birth), pertaining to a midwife. Later it referred more widely to the medical care of women during pregnancy and childbirth.
Gynecology, dating from 1847, is from French gynécologie, combining gynē woman (female) with French –logie (study), of which came from Greek gynaiko-. Much earlier from 1612, gynaecocracy presciently referred to women as the ruling class.
Perhaps most in keeping with modern obsessions with healthy diet, fresh air and exercise was Dryden’s comment:
He ’scapes the best, who nature to repair
Draws physick from the fields in draughts of vital air.
* Johnson himself was awarded a doctorate honoris causa by Trinity College Dublin and in 1775 by the University of Oxford.
- Johnson Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. 1755.
JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of medicine and science.