Proper Names

Q. I’ve been copyediting textbooks for more than a decade. I removed the title Dr. in a section about Martin Luther King Jr. because I thought that once a person is deceased, titles are not used in subsequent references. The editor strongly disagreed with this edit and stetted all the Dr.’s. For me, it was a matter of consistency; we don’t refer to Jonas and Albert as “Dr. Salk” and “Dr. Einstein.” (At least I don’t.) For the editor, it was an issue of respect for a man and his ideals. Is there a difference between dead scientific doctors and dead academic ones, or is Dr. King an exception to the rule?

A. Although I have never heard of the practice of removing honorifics after a person’s death, Chicago style does not use such terms in the first place. There are always justifiable exceptions, however, if an author or compiling editor feels strongly about it. Famous, revered figures like Dr. King are reasonable candidates for special treatment, as are people (especially elderly ones) who have a personal connection to the author and whom the author feels uncomfortable calling “Brown” instead of “Mrs. Brown” or “Professor Brown.” If an author wishes to use an honorific out of respect, you might ask whether all other names in the document should receive equal treatment. This is not always feasible, since there’s no way to know who has which degrees or who is married, and sometimes the query will serve to discourage an author from using any at all.