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Physicians: What's in a Name?   Return to Health Care Theme page

3. Additional Information:

"Physician" means "naturalist", from the Greek word for nature (physis; physikos meant "natural").  Many medicines were, of course, derived from natural substances, and in early language "physic" referred to medicines.

"Nurse" originally meant "suckler," referring to breast feeding.  Nutrire means to suckle in Latin, from which derive nourish, nutrition and nursery (the term was broadened to refer to child care in general).  The modern sense of nurse appeared late in the 16th century.  Note that we still call the place where plants are looked after a nursery. The French term infirmièrecomes from a different source: the Latin infirmus or weak. A nurse was someone who cared for people with infirmities.

"Surgeon" apparently came down from Anglo-Norman surgien, which was derived from Latin chirurgianus.   However, note also that in Greek, cheir means hand, and ergon means work, so a surgeon works with his (her) hands...

"Medic" refers to healing.  Mederi is to heal in Latin.  Medicus was the Latin word for doctor; medicina was both a medication and healing.

"Chiropractor" is very similar in meaning to surgeon.  The cheir (hand) is here linked to pratein (Greek for "to do").  Likewise a chiropodist lays his podos).

"Doctor" means teacher, from the Latin docere, to teach.  It came to refer to people who had achieved great learning, hence the PhD and Doctor of Letters degrees. Later, in the 16th century, doctor gained a specific medical connotation.

Link to discussion of two rival models of medicine;  Dictionary of Latin medical terms;
Choosing your specialty (humorous)

September 3, 2014


“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”
Sir William Osler

ATTORNEY: Doctor, how many of your autopsies have you performed on dead people?
WITNESS: All of them. The live ones put up too much of a fight.