What Is a Profession?

Scarlett, Earle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Feb-03-1997


Scarlett writes about the tradition of medicine in a recognizably British (Canadian) voice. He presents a definition of a profession that features social responsibility and duty to serve others, and notes that "an organized profession does not seek to advance the money-making feature of professional activity." Scarlett identifies seven "pillars" (principal qualities) of the physician, or any other professional: technical skill, social responsibility, knowledge of history, knowledge of literature and the arts, personal integrity, faith that there is some meaning and value in life, and "the grace of humility."

Scarlett critiques the medical profession in two ways. First, physicians are not skeptical enough and willing enough to correct their errors. Secondly, professional qualities have declined "at the hands of the scarcely literate pushing public . . . . " As a result of this, some physicians now believe that "all this rhetoric about the essential nobility of the medical profession is a load of old rubbish" (p. 129).


The medical profession in the 1990’s (despite its advanced technology) is still pervaded by a lack of critical thinking and an unwillingness to admit mistakes. In addition, medicine seems to have largely lost the defining qualities that Scarlett enumerates. Is medicine still characterized by altruism, social responsibly, and humility? What about the other professions? Are these personal qualities really essential in medicine? Or may they be replaced by technical competence alone?

Primary Source

On Doctoring


Simon & Schuster

Place Published

New York




Richard Reynolds & John Stone

Page Count