How Did E.E. Smith Become “Doc”?

Recently FFE received an inquiry from John Grayshaw. John runs the Online Science Fiction Book Club on Facebook, which is associated with the Middletown Public Library in Middletown, PA. The group has worldwide membership and has hosted interviews with a number of science fiction and fan luminaries.

John’s group has an interest in E.E. Smith, and he asked if we’d be willing to respond to a number of questions posed by his folks. Since we’ve just completed a deep-dive on Smith’s early history as a fan (for a chapter in our latest book), we were happy to take up the challenge. The list of questions the group compiled is wide-ranging, and we’ll be working through them over the next several weeks.

The first query on the list was immediately intriguing:
“How did Smith get his famous nickname ‘Doc’?”

In one sense, the answer is obvious: Smith held a Ph.D. in Chemistry from George Washington University and spent his primary career as a research chemist in the food industry. But in his earliest appearance in pulps, this wasn’t apparent.
(Click any of the images for a full-screen view.)

Amazing Stories, v3n5, August 1928. Masthead for Smith’s first published story, omitting his academic credential

To our knowledge, Smith first revealed his Doctoral status to his readers in his response to Hugo Gernsback’s 1929 letter contest titled “What Science Fiction Means To Me.” The contest appeared in the inaugural issue of Science Wonder Stories.

Science Wonder Stories, v1n1, June 1929

Smith’s entry — awarded “Second Honorable Mention” — added the appellation that would thenceforth accompany his name in professional publications: “Edward E. Smith, Ph.D.” Smith’s willingness to participate in a contest targeted primarily at fans was an early indication of his lifelong commitment to maintain a relationship with his audience.

Smith’s credential featured prominently in the publication of his 1930 sequel to “Skylark of Space.”

Amazing Stories, v5n5, August 1930. Note the formal reference to “Dr. Smith” in the Editor’s commentary

Shortly after the appearance of “Skylark Three,” science-minded fans began responding to the story, and to Smith’s “Author’s Note,” which defended the scientific principles and ideas presented in the tale. Among those taking some exception was one John W. Campbell, Jr. — then a relative unknown with just a handful of stories published in Amazing.

Smith responded energetically and in good humor, furthering his reputation in the fan community.

Now to our question: When and how did the esteemed Dr. Smith become the familiar “Doc?” This required some digging. In the end, the apparent answer isn’t too surprising.

In professional publications, we don’t see a reference to Smith as “Doc” until reprints of his work in the 1960s. But we know that by the 1940 World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, Smith was widely known as “Doc” within fandom.

In the Autumn of 1939, two young organizers of the “Chicon” set out to visit Smith on a recruiting mission. They wished to secure him as the Guest of Honor at their convention, thereby further cementing their contested claim to sponsorship of the event. Erle Korshak recounts his visit in the fanzine Fantasy Digest.

Fantasy Digest, v1n6, August-September 1939

“Doc is his name to you” –you, the fans, as Smith considered himself a member of that community. In fact, Smith had claimed the nickname for himself some months prior to the visit in a letter to Ad Astra, a fanzine published by Korshak’s Chicon co-conspirator, Mark Reinsberg.

Signed “Very cordially yours, ‘Doc’ E.E. Smith”

Still earlier, we find Smith signing as “Doc” in a private letter responding to a fan. The author further endeared himself to his readers by engaging with them in rich correspondence. In this personal note to leading Chicago fan Jack Darrow, Smith reveals his hobbies, the makeup of his basement, and his plans for a new novel to be called “Gray Lensman.”

Edward E. Smith, Ph.D. to Jack Darrow, May 8 1938. Courtesy of Doug Ellis

To find the earliest references to “Doc,” we need to continue our journey back in time. Fortunately we have access to most of the premiere fan publications of the 1930s, and one instance surfaced quickly. Courtesy of the Editors of Science Fiction Digest (SFD), we have this detailed autobiographical interview with Smith from 1933.

It seems from this article that Julius Schwartz already had a familiar relationship with author. We know that Smith corresponded with SFD Editor Raymond A. Palmer, who coordinated Smith’s participation in the serial novel Cosmos. So, we dug deeper.

Which early fan might have had the audacity to first refer to the prominent author in a colloquial way? We believe that the answer — perhaps to be expected — is Forrest J Ackerman.

The predecessor to SFD was The Time Traveller, edited by seminal “First Fans” Mort Weisinger, Julius Schwartz and Ackerman. This was arguably the first true fanzine, and was certainly the most sophisticated of the early efforts at fans’ self-publishing. Ackerman, then all of 15 years old, contributed a fanciful column that mimicked a radio broadcast from the future, “Science Fiction On The Air!”

The Time Traveller, v1n6, July 1932

Note the bottom of the first column: “Doc. Smith blew in a few minutes ago and will speak to us soon.”

Ackerman reprised his column in the next issue of The Time Traveller, again referring to Smith in the familiar.

The Time Traveller, v1n7, August 1932

In the midst of the second column, we find:
“How about you ‘Skylark’ Smith? Oh, Doc says he’s being bothered by little red ants at present.”

This citation also includes Smith’s another common nickname, “Skylark Smith,” an obvious reference to his earliest work. Ackerman’s reference to “little red ants” reflects a phrase Smith used in his work; e.g. from Skylark Three:

“Oh, you’re full of little red ants! We can’t do a thing with that zone on…”

The idiom expresses “you’re very madly mistaken,” along the lines of “you’re full of baloney.” We see this odd nugget in sporadic use even today, and we’re very curious to understand the etymology of this etymology.

These are the very first occurrences of “Doc Smith” that we’ve unearthed. We feel it’s entirely apropos that early fans affixed an affectionate tag to an author they revered, but also thought of as one of their own.

We welcome additional insight from others who knew “Doc” or have studied his life and work. More to come as we research other Smith-related questions from the Online Science Fiction Book Club.

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