I've seen several English translations for "PhD", but seems to me that it did not originate from England. Who introduced the term, what did it originally stand for and where did it originate from? I'm curious where anyone has traced out this history.


The title PhD as the name of an advanced degree was first awarded in Germany at the Humboldt University of Berlin in the 19th century. From there it spread to the US, Japan and elsewhere in Europe.

The chicken and egg problem was simple: you don't have to have a PhD to certify someone as an expert in some field of knowledge if you are already a world-leading authority in that field of knowledge. The faculty at the Humboldt University at that time were all already widely known experts, and so they were able to credential other as experts.


Term Ph.D. is an abbreviation from Philosophy Doctor (also referred to as doctor of philosophy), an English language variant of the Latin phrase Doctor Philosophiae. Historically, the linguistic roots of the title can be traced back to early meaning of modern English language words doctor and philosophy. The former comes from Latin word for (license to) teach (see this Wikipedia article), while the former comes from Greek phrase for "love of wisdom", implying general knowledge acquisition. While I am not aware of who introduced the term "doctor of philosophy" (and, most likely, it cannot be proved accurately), if I can make an uneducated guess, it most likely has been introduced some time in medieval Europe. Interesting additional linguistic and historical support of the above-mentioned information can be found in this related discussion on StackExchange.

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    Interesting linguistic side note: In Denmark, the degree is also called a PhD (or sometimes "ph.d.") but it is not actually an acronym in Danish. So, someone who has a PhD is not a "doctor," they're just a "PhD graduate." – Thomas Oct 3 '15 at 16:33
  • @Thomas: Thank you for the note. While the ancient meaning of the word doctor is still implied, it seems that some languages have interesting ways of assimilating and using certain foreign words and phrases. – Aleksandr Blekh Oct 3 '15 at 22:10
  • Thank you. Part of the impetus to my question was to bring to mind how the first PhD could come about, since it could not be conferred by a pre-existing PhD. – TheDoctor Oct 5 '15 at 19:02
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    @TheDoctor: You're welcome. Chicken and egg problem? I think that you're over-complicating things. In reality, I think that it could have happened as simple as follows. Some respected smart and knowledgeable people (scholars) got together and said: "People! Why great noble warriors have a title that distinguishes them from others and we, scholars, don't. Let's create a title to recognize mastery in scholarly subjects and call it doctor of philosophy". Most likely, it hasn't been a single gathering, but after a number of them and, perhaps, some debate, a consensus has been reached. :-) – Aleksandr Blekh Oct 5 '15 at 19:43
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    @AleksandrBlekh: THAT was the exact concept I was looking for (chicken-and-egg), even if quite suboptimal and sophomoric -- yet I cannot seem to create another. I have re-worded the title. – TheDoctor Oct 5 '15 at 19:54

In the older English universities there had been for hundreds of years the senior doctoral degrees (Doctor of Science, Doctor of Letters, etc) that were broadly equivalent to habilitation in the universities of continental Europe. They were awarded in recognition of a very great mass of work, much more than a mere PhD dissertation. The holders of those degrees did not, in their opinion, NEED PhD degrees to decide to confer them on other people. When I was a post-graduate student at Cambridge 50 years ago there was a certain inverted snobbery amongst some of the teachers: I was taught Galois theory by Mr X FRS. Presumably he did not feel the need to prove himself by bothering with any postgraduate degree, and what is more, his senior colleagues presumably thought he did not need to do so either.

  • Possibly interruption to academic path due to WW2? (Frank Bonsall never received a PhD, if I recall correctly) – Yemon Choi Dec 30 '16 at 17:34
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    In the particular case that was not so. He was not the only such teacher at that time. – JeremyC Jan 1 '17 at 11:02

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