In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, it's mentioned that the schoolteacher had an anatomy book in his desk due to wanting to be a doctor at one point.

The master, Mr. Dobbins, had reached middle age with an unsatisfied ambition. The darling of his desires was, to be a doctor, but poverty had decreed that he should be nothing higher than a village schoolmaster. Every day he took a mysterious book out of his desk and absorbed himself in it at times when no classes were reciting. He kept that book under lock and key. There was not an urchin in school but was perishing to have a glimpse of it, but the chance never came. Every boy and girl had a theory about the nature of that book; but no two theories were alike, and there was no way of getting at the facts in the case. Now, as Becky was passing by the desk, which stood near the door, she noticed that the key was in the lock! It was a precious moment. She glanced around; found herself alone, and the next instant she had the book in her hands. The titlepage—Professor Somebody’s Anatomy—carried no information to her mind; so she began to turn the leaves.

Why did "poverty decree" that he couldn't he become a doctor? What kinds of things could have prevented him from doing that? Was medical school difficult to get in to at that point?

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    Hasn't it always been? Feb 8, 2021 at 3:20
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    I'm not sure - that's why I asked. Feb 8, 2021 at 3:42
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    Not difficult. Just expensive... Feb 8, 2021 at 17:54
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    To be a lawyer, OTOH, was just a matter of "hanging out your shingle" in some places in that time, though; getting customers was another matter. For example, see Twain's brother Orion (hung out is shingle several times, never got many clients) Feb 9, 2021 at 6:14

3 Answers 3


Teachers didn't require any training or licensure at this time.

The U.S. Department of Education has published a brief paper on the history of teaching in the U.S. here. Since Tom Sawyer takes place in the 1840s, there is really no chance that a college education would have been required, except in some extraordinary local circumstances. Mr. Dobbins may have wanted to become a doctor, but couldn't afford the necessary and expensive medical training.

During the 19th century, no formal educational requirements were in place for teachers. Teacher certification was inconsistent, but there was no "teaching profession" and no formal education was required. You just needed to persuade your local government that you were good enough to be a teacher.

Teacher certification in the nineteenth century was irregular and diverse. There was no single pattern, and there was no teaching profession as such.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the requirements for entry into teaching were modest: new teachers had to persuade a local school board of their moral character, and in some districts, pass a test of their general knowledge. In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state to require future teachers to pass a test of reading, writing, and arithmetic. By 1867, most states required teachers to pass a locally administered test to get a state certificate, which usually included not only the basic skills, but also U.S. history, geography, spelling, and grammar.

At this point in history, some states had required basic skills tests. However, more than likely any requirements would be imposed by the local district and not by the state.

It wasn't until the 20th century that formal teacher's certifications appeared in the United States. During this time there was an increasing professionalization of teachers. Pedagogy degrees (like a bachelor's degree in education) appeared, and eventually became the norm for teacher certification.

Physician's training was expensive and needed in practice.

Physicians' training on the other hand, was both expensive and required in practice (though perhaps not formally required).

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, medical licensure in the U.S. dates back to the colonial period (that is, prior to the American Revolution). By the 1800s medical societies (essentially professional organizations) were regulating medical practice and certifying physicians. Your regional medical society would be responsible for certifying you as a doctor. Universities and medical societies both offered medical degrees.

Slawson(2012) summarizes medical training in the United States throughout this period. Medical degrees typically consisted of 2 years of lecture and 3 years of apprenticeship. This cost about between about $790 - $1,250 in total, at a time when the annual income for a factory laborer was about $360 a year - half that for rural labor. Unless your family already had money, it would be difficult to afford this education.

It seems that actually having a medical degree was often not necessary for practice. Perhaps only 40% of practitioners had medical degrees (though they may have attended lectures and had some apprenticeship before their own practice). Nonetheless, affording this education at all would have been difficult for a laborer's family.

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    Excellent answer. Welcome to the site by the way - good to have you. Feb 8, 2021 at 6:43
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    This answer documents very well that teaching didn’t require expensive training, but gives no details of what training was required for doctors. It would be greatly strengthened by a little more detail to back up the mention of “necessary and expensive medical training.” Feb 8, 2021 at 11:22
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    I'm not sure that a degree, or even training, was a requirement to hang one's shingle in a town in one of the territories.
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 8, 2021 at 13:57
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    The paper journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2156587211427404 describes medical training in the US in the period in question. Feb 9, 2021 at 0:30
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    @kimchilover Thanks. I incorporated that into the answer. Feb 9, 2021 at 4:23

Attending medical school would have required him to pay tuition and living expenses. Furthermore, earning income while attending medical school would have been difficult if not impossible.

You didn't have to attend college to become a teacher. Laura Ingalls was certified to teach by passing a test, and she wasn't even sixteen at the time, and had not even attended high school.

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    Would he have had to pay for college to be trained as a teacher, though? I'm admittedly not terribly familiar with what qualifications a teacher would usually have possessed. Feb 7, 2021 at 21:33
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    Do you have any evidence to back this answer up? General knowledge is much more useful when augmented with citations.
    – bobble
    Feb 7, 2021 at 21:42
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    You didn't have to attend college to become a teacher. Laura Ingalls was certified to teach by passing a test, and she wasn't even sixteen at the time, and had not even attended high school
    – Mary
    Feb 7, 2021 at 21:42
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    Please edit your answer to add evidence (with citations!) instead of commenting. Again, even general knowledge is more useful when double-checked with evidence.
    – bobble
    Feb 7, 2021 at 22:30

I note that George Armstrong Custer was a school teacher for a while when age 17, and Laura Ingals Wilder became a school teacher while still fifteen and still a high school student.

So no long educational process was necessary to become a school teacher in a 19th century elementary school.

But medical doctors usually had to attend at least a few years of medical school, which was expensive.

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    I'm not sure how this answer adds to the other ones already here; it seems to be repeating the same conclusions on less evidence.
    – bobble
    Feb 9, 2021 at 19:16
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    Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Since you are new here, you may not know that this site is a bit different from a forum and expects claims like those in your answer to be backup by sources. You could significantly improve your answer by adding when becoming a doctor in the USA required a medical degree and when becoming a teacher required some sort of degree (presumably after in whichTom Sawyer is situated).
    – Tsundoku
    Feb 9, 2021 at 20:19

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