The English world is filled with unique regional distinctions, from food to spelling variations. The medical field is not an exception.
In the United Kingdom and Ireland, including Australia and New Zealand sometimes, male surgeons are always called misters (Mr).
They bewilder millions of people everywhere else who called surgeons just like their doctoral colleagues.
And in Britain, this has become a bizarre tradition that they adopt as the norm. Why are surgeons called misters instead of doctors in these parts of the world?
The prestigious beginnings of the British medical field
Since this is a British tradition, the answer lies in 18th century Britain. As the nation entered modernity, the medical field there advanced with it.
Rich gentlemen became physicians by having a university medical degree, making them earn the title of Medical Doctor.
Only physicians had the privilege to be called a doctor at this time. They treated internal diseases, wrote Latin prescriptions, and based their decisions on the patient’s medical history and appearance.
The meager origins of surgery in Britain
While physicians enjoyed high status, elitism, and credibility, surgery was considered brute and archaic. Surgery began in barbershops as early as the medieval period, in the 1500s.
These “barber surgeons” treated ulcers, wounds, and infections despite having no formal education and training.
Furthermore, according to Medical News Today, barber surgeons also adopted superstitions and pseudoscience in performing surgery.
So while gentlemen in universities started calling themselves doctors and patients knew them with that title, surgeons were called misters.
The Royal College of Surgeons of London, founded in 1745, sought to elevate surgery from the one practiced by the much-older Company of Barbers and Surgeons.
However, even though surgery began to be formalized as a medical field, they retained their title as misters.
The rise of surgery… and calling surgeons “misters”
Setting aside our current perception of the word, “mister” was an honorary title for surgeons during that time.
As surgery became respected and recognized, surgeons being called misters became the norm in Britain and its colonies at that time.
The Royal College of Surgeons of London further awarded practitioners the title “Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons” (MRCS) after their names.
At first, surgeons were considered physicians’ consultants and assistants. Doctors diagnosed and treated patients based on how they looked, while “misters” were only called when the sick needed surgical intervention.
There were even times when becoming a surgeon seemed like a demotion, especially during the Napoleonic wars.
But surgery as a professional quickly advanced, and “misters” rose to match the experience and knowledge of their “doctor” colleagues.
In 1834, the Royal College of Surgeons reported to the British parliament that surgery in the country was the most advanced in Europe.
As narrated by medical historian Irvine Loudon, surgeons soon overtook physicians in prestige and income. Because of this, “mister” became an honorary badge that set them apart from the “doctors.”
Being a “mister” and an elite surgeon
The 19th century saw the rise of “misters.” The Apothecaries Act expanded the field of general medical practice.
The Royal College of Surgeons also taught practitioners midwifery, pharmacy, and the subjects learned by physicians.
In 1884, the License of the Royal College of Physicians (LRCP) combined with the Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS).
However, elite surgeons wanted to be distinct from general practitioners who claimed to be surgeons as well.
Because of this, the Royal College of Surgeons of London made a new charter, renaming themselves as the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Surgeons also ranked themselves as fellows— “pure surgeons”— and retained the honor of being called “misters.”
The present controversy of calling surgeons “misters”
Language evolves: spelling, grammar, and the definition of words can change radically as culture and context change through the centuries.
As explained here, surgeons used “mister” as a title that set them apart from doctors and general medical practitioners.
But as the medical industry and the field of surgery progressed since then, calling surgeons have become confusing, especially in Britain and Ireland.
Now, there are many specializations in medicine, but they have a common denominator. Radiologists, general practitioners, anesthesiologists, obstetricians, and gynecologists— all medical practitioners— are called doctors.
But for surgeons? They are still widely called misters.
How should a physician be called if he performs surgery the following day? Many of such cases muddle how doctors and surgeons should be called.
Dr. Craig Semple, a surgeon and professor from Melbourne, Australia, reports that calling surgeons “mister” is starting to lose popularity in his country. After all, the doctorate title bears confidence and reputation.
On the contrary, males can be called a mister, from janitors to teachers to engineers to a random guy on the street!
Patients elsewhere may lose faith in the surgeons treating them because of such an obsolete title.
Call for reforms
While British and Irish surgeons may call themselves “mister,” medical professionals everywhere else consider this an outdated English tradition.
Jeremy Laurance, a writer at The Independent, describes this practice as snobbery and asked surgeons to call themselves doctors as they should be.
Even the President of the Royal College of Surgeons, Hugh Phillips, argues that titles may confuse patients.
He also calls it an example of tribalism, where surgeons may want to make themselves look better than other doctors.
Writing for the US National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, Irvine Loudon said that there are no reasons now to call surgeons “misters.”
After all, every medical professional, including surgeons, in Britain are equally accredited by the General Medical Council.
Titles and acronym extensions are just confusing for the patients while proving nothing.
Why are surgeons called mister? In summary:
- From the 1500s to the years before the 1800s, surgeons were at barbershops, operating without qualifications and formal training. They were called misters.
- Gentlemen who became physicians in universities were called doctors.
- Surgery became formalized upon the founding of the Royal College of Surgeons of London in the 1800s. The field quickly progressed, and surgeons surpassed physicians. “Mister” became an honorary title that made them distinct from “doctors.”
- At present, many surgeons in Britain and Ireland call themselves “mister.”