Yes, there is a doctor in the house. Sometimes it’s a well-qualified academic or physician, sometimes it’s just a dude who likes the title. Here are some historical figures, politicians, musicians and other famous people we all know as Doctor.
“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” — supposedly uttered by explorer Henry Morton Stanley in 1871 — is so familiar it’s easy to forget that Livingstone had a first name in addition to the title “Doctor.” He was DAVID LIVINGSTONE, a physician and Christian missionary from Scotland who explored the interior of the African continent in the middle of the 19th century.
In the 1950s, new mothers across the United States had all the advice they needed from DR. SPOCK, the author of the bestselling Baby and Child Care. Benjamin Spock was a pediatrician from Connecticut, and his book was a major influence on child-rearing in the post-war period. His famous name is the source of some confusion: for decades, Star Trek fans have winced as non-fans have said Dr. Spock, when it’s actually Mr. Spock (first portrayed by Leonard Nimoy).
Another doctor who liked to give advice was HENRY KISSINGER. Kissinger has been a celebrity in foreign affairs since the late 1960s, as a former professor at Harvard University and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford. The world has heard the opinions of “Dr. Kissinger” for nearly forty years, but how many of us know what kind of doctor he is exactly? He earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1954, although the discipline is not clear: international relations and political science are the most mentioned.
DR. BILL COSBY was once plain ol’ Cos, a brilliant and successful stand-up comedian. Then he was one of TV’s brightest stars in the 1980s on Cosby. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1976, and suddenly Dr. Bill Cosby’s take on family life meant more than just funny jokes. Since a 2018 conviction for sexual assault he’s been in a Pennsylvania jail, where presumably few people call him “Doctor Cosby.”
The title adds prestige, sure, but it’s also just plain catchy. Ask DR. RUTH or DR. LAURA, advisors to America’s radio listening audience. Dr. Ruth Westheimer became a national celebrity with her straight talk about sex, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger made her name telling listeners to straighten up and fly right. Dr. Ruth has a Ph.D. in education, Dr. Laura has a Ph.D. in physiology.
Not only was it catchy, the nickname was true for gunfighter DOC HOLLIDAY: he was a trained dentist. Doc Holliday made his mark as a cohort of the Earps in the famous 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Inflicted with tuberculosis, Holliday’s career as a dentist lasted only a few years. On the recommendation of his physicians, he left his practice in Atlanta, Georgia and moved west, the theory being that the dry western air would prolong his life. Doc Holliday found a new career as a gambler, and his steely nerves and eager trigger finger earned him a place in wild west lore.
DOC SEVERINSEN may not have been a real doctor, but his dad was (another dentist!), and as a tyke Severinsen was known as “Little Doc” by the local townsfolk of Arlington, Oregon. Eventually that got shortened to “Doc” when Severinsen began his musical career. A trumpeter, he was the bandleader on Johnny Carson‘s The Tonight Show from 1967-92. Doc Severinsen was legendary for his colorful outfits, and Carson used to joke that he was “the only trumpeter who dresses louder than he plays.”
Doc Severinsen is not the only doctor in the musical house. While he was dressing up the airwaves, the folk music revivalists of the 1960s were discovering DOC WATSON. A flat-picking guitarist from North Carolina, Doc Watson began recording traditional and original bluegrass tunes at the age of 39, and is now considered one of the most influential musicians in the field.
Pop tunesmith Harry Nilsson had a drinking partner and fellow musician in DR. WINSTON O’BOOGIE, with whom he co-wrote several songs that appear on the Nilsson album Pussycats. In fact, Dr. Winston O’Boogie was the pseudonym of John Lennon of The Beatles.
Rock ‘n’ roll and bluegrass have their doctors, and so does hip-hop. In the 1980s Andre Young co-founded the rap group N.W.A., then moved on to solo records and producing. In 1999 his production of The Slim Shady LP helped make Eminem a pop star. Young is also known as DR. DRE, but as far as we know, he’s not a real doctor, even if he can make you feel good.
Another guy who made people feel good was basketball star DR. J. Better known as Julius Erving, Dr. J was the shining star of the American Basketball Association, and when that league folded he became a box office draw for the National Basketball Association, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a national championship in 1983.
Some famous “doctors” aren’t real doctors, and others aren’t even real people. For years, Theodore Geisel wrote and illustrated books for children under a pen name. He published nearly 50 books and was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Geisel died in 1991, but children across the United States still celebrate his birthday with their favorite DR. SEUSS books.
Television has had many famous doctors, usually of the heroic and handsome variety. But the doctor with perhaps the most fervent following didn’t hang around emergency rooms and clinics. Instead, “the Doctor” in DR. WHO traveled the universe, battling monsters and robots in this and other dimensions. The Doctor’s close brushes with space pirates, mind robbers, dinosaurs and Daleks have kept viewers entertained since 1963.
DR. JILL BIDEN earned her doctorate in education from the University of Delaware in 2007, onw year before her husband, Joe Biden, was elected Vice President. Nobody gave much thought to her degree until 2020, when Joe Biden was elected president, making Dr. Biden the First Lady-to-be. That December, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece attacking Biden for using the title of doctor. The piece began: “Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo… Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name?” The piece was roundly (and rightly) attacked as sexist and just plain dumb. For the record, Dr. Jill Biden is, indeed, a doctor.