Prescribe me a poem, Dr Keats

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The Independent Online
I want to ask the question about John Keats today that no one else has ever asked: why is he called John Keats and not Dr John Keats or plain Dr Keats?

He was, after all, a medical gentleman. He had not, I think, finished his training, but I know many doctors who are called doctor who have not yet finished their training, and no one looks askance at them.

The fact of the matter is that it would never occur to us to address John Keats as Dr Keats unless he had come round to see how we were and whether we should go on taking those little blue pills. The British quite like addressing doctors as doctor when they are being doctors. They do not much like calling them doctor if they are doing something else, like playing golf or writing or appearing on quiz shows. They certainly do not like calling them doctor if they just write poetry.

Mark you, doctoring and writing do go quite closely together. You can think off-hand of many writers who trained as doctors and then went on to better-paid things. Even I can think of one or two. The one who springs immediately to mind is Somerset Maugham, who studied medicine at St Thomas's Hospital and, I believe, used the experience gained there to write his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, and to get enough money from it to drop the risky life of a doctor and adopt the risky life of a writer. But was he at any point in his writing career addressed as "Dr Maugham"? I doubt it. Did he take the pulse of rich and famous guests at his home in the South of France? I doubt it.

There was a time when you could not scratch a cabaret group or comedy group without finding at least one trained doctor in there. Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe. Graham Chapman in Monty Python. Graeme Garden in the Goodies. All of Instant Sunshine. All of Beetles and Buckman. But not one of them was ever referred to by their medical qualifications. Among today's new comedians the only doctor I can think of off-hand is Harry Hill, but nobody ever called him Dr Hill on air. It was different in the old days. You started out as Dr Hill, the radio doctor, and ended up as Lord Hill, the government stooge in charge of the BBC ...

Having scratched my brains for a long time, I can think of no poet who has ever adopted the title doctor except Dr Seuss, writer of such children's books as The Cat in the Hat (and I have no idea if he is a real doctor or even a real Seuss) and, of course, Dr Johnson, who was not a doctor in the medical sense either, only in the sense of having acquired a doctorate.

It is only when you get into music that you start finding quantities of doctors and then they are generally just docs, not doctors. There are two jazz trumpeters called Doc Cheatham and Doc Severinsen, and I haven't managed to find a connection between them and medicine, nor do I think they have any doctorates between them. There was the songwriter Doc Pomus, and the singer/pianist Dr John, and the famous gunfighter Doc Holliday ...

I read a life of Doc Holliday once. It was a bit like reading a life of Henry Purcell. A lot was known about his times but nothing much about the man himself. All that really came out about Doc Holliday was that he had received some medical training, probably as a dentist, that he drank a lot and that he was not much of a shot. But it was enough to get him the nickname of "Doc", and I suppose that wherever he moved in the Wild West, people edged up to him at parties and said: "Doc Holliday? You a doctor? I wonder if you'd take a quick look at my shoulder, I think I may have a bullet in it." And Doc Holliday would say, "I'm sorry, I'm off-duty at the moment," and the man would say, "If you don't look at my shoulder, I'll shoot you."

That is the trouble with being called doctor. If it gets out that you are called doctor for medical reasons, people think you are interested in curing them. That is why the average sensible doctor tries to keep his qualifications out of sight. And that is why, I now realise, almost everyone who is called doctor, or who allows himself to be called doctor, is not medically qualified to be a doctor at all, and the real doctors leave their rank in the cloakroom.

In politics, for example, David Owen was a proper doctor but he kept quiet about that. Dr Ian Paisley and Dr Brian Mawhinney, on the other hand, like being called doctor but I would not call either of them to my bedside if I were dying. Nor if I were trying to form a political party, but that is another matter ...

So there you have it. That is why John Keats was never called Dr Keats. He did not want Byron or Shelley coming up to him at parties and asking him to look at their shoulders. Next question, please.

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