Work is More Important Than Title

In my article of last week, ‘Expanding the Frontiers of Knowledge,’ I had written about the Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded for the prediction and eventually discovery of the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson. It bears the name of Peter Higgs, the Scottish physicist who had predicted its existence nearly fifty years earlier.

I was quite interested, therefore, to read a short news feature about him that appeared in a UK newspaper a couple of days back. For one, he told the BBC that he was “proposing” to retire “properly” next year, and further, ‘he revealed that he turned down the offer of a knighthood from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999 because he thought “anything of that sort was premature” and because he didn’t want “any sort of title.”’ This reminded me of the relinquishment of his knighthood by Rabindranath Tagore after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 by the troops of General Dwyer, in which hundreds of civilians who had gathered for a meeting in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, in the state of Punjab, were gunned down and killed in cold blood.

What a coincidence that these two personalities are Nobel Prize winners! Their attitude towards the title of ‘Sir’ shows the little importance they attached to it, since it did not change anything as far as their work was concerned, which was ongoing. Most times it is the entourage of those who receive titles who feel in some way elevated when ‘their’ recipients are so ‘honoured,’ but if the latter are genuine and passionate about their work, any glory associated with the title is but a blip in their life. For those, however, whose concern is to impress others – and alas there are people who are easily impressed by such stuff – they hang on to the title as if it is the be-all and end-all of their life!

As we were a British colony, it was British titles that used to be conferred until we became a republic. How many of the local ‘Sirs’ lived up to the value implied in the appellation is left to the imagination of those who knew them through their behaviour and actions. And from there to become a Lord – one can only laugh! No wonder there are people in England who want to do away with Lords altogether, and I have come across many an article in the British media expressing cynicism about the House of Lords, and some at least of its occupants, who apparently are not as august as the institution is meant to be.

Some people insist upon their ‘proper’ titles being shown, and get very upset when they are not referred to by their title, even when in actual life this is not relevant to the actual work that they do. This is particularly the case with the title ‘Dr,’ which is often an academic title for PhD holders. All over the world whenever somebody is called ‘Dr’ the assumption is that he is a medical person, and somehow, rightly or wrongly, people being called ‘Dr’ are associated with an image and a status. For the one who is a practising doctor, being called ‘Dr’ is no more nor less than a recognition that he belongs to the medical profession and is expected to perform the medical duties conforming to his qualifications(s).

For non-medical ‘Drs’, however, at least in some cases that I have unfortunately witnessed, it is the assumed or perceived social status that is claimed as being of importance, but in actual practice what I have found – just as in the case of medical ‘Drs’ – is that the title counts less than what the person actually does in practice. However, this is human nature, and the status thing is so alluring that some people are willing to assume the role of fake doctors. It used to be the case with some nurses in olden times, who were quite happy being called doctors as they went around giving injections and such stuff. Wouldn’t it be better to be known as a good nurse or a good whatever rather than being a half-baked ‘Dr’?

Let me end with an incident: a first-hand encounter that brought home to me the artificiality, in a way, of titles. I had just got my first surgery job in the UK, and on joining the unit I was directed to go and meet the Registrar, an Egyptian guy who had qualified as a surgeon in the UK, and who occupied a post just below that of the Consultant. I introduced myself and politely asked, ‘You are Dr…?’ I was both shocked and amused by his brusque, booming reply: ‘NOT DOCTORRR…,’ he snarled, ‘NOT DOCTORRR, MISTERRR, MISTERRR!’

It is a long story, but in the UK you study so many years to become a doctor, and then so many years more to become a surgeon, after which you are no longer addressed as ‘Dr’ but as ‘Mr.’ That’s because of a conflict that goes back at least two centuries, when the profession of surgery evolved from the simple cutting of abscesses to being established on scientific principles. As knives were most often used professionally by barbers, surgeons were taunted as being barber-surgeons, and those practitioners who did not do such lowly things as cutting abscesses and draining the pus but who prescribed medicines after ‘proper thinking’ were known as physicians and called ‘doctors of physic’, and they established a college of physicians by royal charter. Such a charter was granted to the surgeons much later. Because of this rivalry, surgeons decided they would call themselves ‘Mr’ and not ‘Dr.’

And so the explosion of my friend the Egyptian Registrar. Really, it’s quite all right to be plain Mr. Or Mrs I suppose. But as the saying goes, in these matters, what’s in a name?

* Published in print edition on 18 October 2013

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