When research universities were established in the late 19th century in the United States, they primarily awarded doctorates in the sciences and later the arts. By the early 20th century, these universities began to offer doctoral degrees in professional fields. The first professional degrees were awarded in medicine and law. Shortly thereafter, in response to the societal demand for expert practitioners, doctorates began to be awarded in education. The first Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in the field of education was granted at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1893. The first Doctor of Education (EdD) degree was granted at Harvard University in 1921. Henry Holmes, an educator at Harvard College, raised funds to establish the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Holmes saw value in increasing Harvard’s role in the professional training of educators and established doctorate of education, or Ed.D., for students who had had a successful teaching experience, possessed a “working knowledge of biology, psychology, and the social sciences”, and who sought a higher position within the school system. The program of study comprised five areas of education plus the study of social theory in education, history of education, and educational psychology.  The dissertation served to teach the student to conduct an independent investigation utilizing existing knowledge and producing a “constructive result of importance and value” . The purpose of the Ed.D. was to offer a rigorous course of study that would enhance candidates’ prior knowledge and skills and better prepare them to lead as school practitioners 
The EdD degree was then added by Teachers College in 1934. Between 1925 and 1940 many institutions, including the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan followed the steps of Columbia and Harvard and established schools and colleges of education that offered graduate study and eventually, the two doctoral degrees. Despite this growth, however, these and other schools of education struggled to establish their identity as professional schools and were perpetually engulfed in debate over the purpose of the Ed.D.
The history of the Ed.D. throughout the 20th century was one of confusion. In many graduate schools of education it was a practitioner degree, while in others it was consider education's research doctorate. Several factors contributed to the confusion: First, offering two doctoral degrees resulted in constant conflict between the “demands of theory and those of practice”. Second, the advancement of professional training was further complicated as schools of education competed with schools of arts and sciences. Graduate programs in arts and sciences were older and more established. Traditionally arts and science faculty offered doctoral preparation in the form of the Ph.D. Both the school of arts and sciences and its faculty had difficulty relinquishing their expertise in doctoral studies or in acknowledging the need for a professional doctorate degree. Third, from the inception of both doctoral degrees in education, unclear goals and similar programmatic content have confused the degree purposes and plagued professionalization efforts .
The EdD currently is awarded in several countries in addition to the United States (see below).