History — Higher Learning with Editor's Response

William Dudson Bacon, MD
Article Type: 
September/October 1998
Volume Number: 
Issue Number: 

Dear Dr. Faria,

I’m a lifetime member of the AAPS, now retired from the solo private practice of ophthalmology but active in clinical medical research.

I always enjoy articles in the Medical Sentinel written by you, [although the]...entire issue is [always]...full of useful information.

I’d very much appreciate your opinion as to how, historically, the practice came about for Americans to refer to medical colleges as “medical schools,” or why we say “law schools,” etc. It’s understandable to say grade or elementary schools, middle or junior high schools, and finally high schools. Beyond that, we refer to higher education undergraduate “college.” But then, after the usual four years of pre-medical college, we go upward as to a medical “school”; mine was Jefferson Medical “College,” but why don’t others, such as Harvard, call their post-graduate education Harvard Medical “College,” rather than Harvard Medical “School...”

Did this expression date back, historically, to when the high school graduates went immediately on to what they called medical schools, without any pre-medical college training?

I’d very much like your analysis regarding this strangely illogical expression. Perhaps, it could be the basis of an article in the Medical Sentinel.

William Dudson Bacon, MD
Brier, WA


Dr. Faria Responds:

Dear Dr. Bacon,

The word school is derived from the Greek word scholé (thence, the Latin, schola), which referred to the followers or pupils (i.e., scholars from Latin, scholaris) of a philosophical sect or school of thought, as in ancient Greece, probably earlier than the historic and extraordinary 5th Century B.C.; one example is the Pythagorian school of philosophy. The term may also refer to the followers of a specific program or school of learning (i.e., the school of Hippocrates or of his [school] on the Island of Cos, incorporating both medicine and philosophy). Later in Roman times, the term “school” was used to denote schools of higher learning and the term profession also came into existence, referring to those who “profess” a vocation, make a religious vow, or answer a “higher calling” to a learned “profession” (i.e., medicine, law, ethics, or theology).

In Vandals at the Gates of Medicine, I discuss some of the origins and derivations of these terms, as well as the terms physiks (pp. 222-223, 276) for “physicians” which pertain to medical doctors as opposed to “surgeons” (from the Greek, chirurgeons/cheirourgns, “hand-worker”); doctor (from the Latin, docere, “to teach”); medicine (from the Latin, medicus, pertaining to “healing”), etc.

The term university refers to the teachings and curricula of the medieval universities (pp. 218-219). The term college, in turn, refers, perhaps more specifically, to an institution of higher learning, particularly the teaching of the liberal arts, rather than technical or vocational training. It is derived from the Latin, collegium. These two terms, college and university, are then very closely related.

The term “school” has come to have several meanings, including the denotation of the particular faculty of a modern university (i.e., the medical faculty) and the degrees it is authorized to confer upon their graduates, (i.e., doctor of jurisprudence [J.D.], medical doctor [M.D.], etc.); it also may refer to the followers of a specific “school of art”  (i.e., Impressionist or French school of art, etc.). Today, the most common usage of the term “school” is to denote the place and building where instructions are given by teachers to students. I recommend reading pages 209-224, 276, 279-299 of Vandals at the Gates of Medicine.

Miguel A. Faria, Jr., MD
Macon, GA

Originally published in the Medical Sentinel 1998;3(5):154-155. Copyright © 1998 Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).








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