William Osler

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William Osler, around 1870, as a medical student
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See also Margaret Ridley Charlton | Important librarians in history | History of medicine portal | Osler Library of the History of Medicine | Lucille Teasdale

“...while medicine is to be your vocation, or calling, see to it that you have also an avocation – some intellectual pastime which may serve to keep you in touch with the world of art, of science, or of letters.” — Osler, Aequanimitas

Sir William Osler (1849 — 1919), Canadian-born physician, bibliophile and master teacher, is widely-regarded as an icon of modern medicine, earning the moniker the Father of Modern Medicine from his peers as well as students of medical history. Osler was born in Bradford-West Gwillimbury (now Bond-Head) in Ontario and raised in Dundas, Ontario. Osler's parents were Reverend Featherstone Lake Osler and Ellen Free Picton; he had two older brothers, Britton Bath Osler (1839-1901) and Edmund Boyd Osler (Ontario politician) (1845-1924). As a teenager, Osler wanted to follow his father into the ministry and entered Trinity College in Toronto in 1867. He eventually attended the private Toronto School of Medicine, and not the University of Toronto. He eventually transferred to McGill where he earned his medical degree (MDCM) in 1872. Following post-graduate training in Europe, Osler returned to Montreal as the McGill professor of medicine in 1874. In 1884, he was appointed Chair of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. His farewell address Aequanimitas is on the equanimity needed by physicians. He became the first chief of staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1889, and one of the first professors of medicine in 1893. In 1905, he was appointed to the Regius Chair of Medicine at University of Oxford which he held until his death. Osler was created a baron in 1911 for his contributions to medicine.

Author, book collector, teacher

Osler was a prolific author and a great collector of books and materials in the history of medicine. He willed his library to McGill where it became the core of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine. The printed catalogue is entitled "Bibliotheca Osleriana: a catalogue of books illustrating the history of medicine and science, collected, arranged and annotated by Sir William Osler, Bt. and bequeathed to McGill University". Sir William and Lady Osler's ashes rest in a niche in the Osler Library, surrounded by his books. A strong supporter of libraries, Osler served on library committees at the universities he taught at and was a member of the Board of Curators of Oxford's Bodleian Library. Osler was instrumental in founding the Medical Library Association and served as its second President from 1901-1904. In Britain, he was the first (and only) President of the Medical Library Association of Great Britain.

Contributions to medical education

After the publication of his text The Principles and Practice of Medicine in 1892, Osler's greatest contribution to medicine was his insistence that medical students learned by seeing and doing, and talking to patients. His idea of medical residency caught on throughout North America, and remains a critical part of the physician's training today. The success of the residency system depended on its pyramidal structure with interns, assistant residents and a single chief resident. Osler insisted that medical students get to the bedside early in their training; by their third year they were taking patient histories, performing physicals and doing lab tests instead of sitting in lecture halls. He diminished the role of lectures and once said he hoped his tombstone would say "He brought medical students into the wards for bedside teaching."

Osler established the full-time, sleep-in residency system where staff physicians lived in the Administration Building of the Hospital. The residency was open-ended, and long tenure was the rule. Doctors spent seven or eight years as residents, during which they led a restricted life. Osler's contribution to medical education was the idea of clinical clerkships--having third and fourth year students work with patients on wards. He pioneered the practice of bedside teaching making rounds with a handful of students, demonstrating what one student referred to as his method of "incomparably thorough physical examination." Osler is well-known in gerontology for the speech he gave when leaving Hopkins to become the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. His speech (The Fixed Period) from 1905 included controversial words about old age. Osler was in his mid-fifties when he gave the speech citing Trollope's "The Fixed Period" which had envisaged a College where men retired at 60 and after a contemplative period of a year were 'peacefully extinguished' by chloroform. He said that "effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty" and it was downhill from then on. His speech was covered by the popular press which headlined their reports with "Osler recommends chloroform at sixty". The Fixed Period speech is included in the book of his collected addresses, "Aequanimitas")

He himself liked to say, "He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all." He is also remembered for saying, "If you listen carefully to the patient they will tell you the diagnosis" which emphasises the importance of taking a good history.

Renaissance man

Osler was a true Renaissance man -- a physician, clinician, pathologist, teacher, diagnostician, bibliophile, historian, classicist, essayist, conversationalist, organizer, manager and author. He established a tradition at Hopkins that became the goal of those who succeeded him. He once said, "I desire no other epitaph … than the statement that I taught medical students in the wards, as I regard this as by far the most useful and important work I have been called upon to do." He died, at the age of 70, in 1919, during the Spanish influenza epidemic; his wife, Grace, lived another nine years. In 1925, a biography of Osler was written by Harvey Cushing. A later critical biography by Michael Bliss was published in 1999.

Key websites & video

  • This site is a collaboration between the Alan Mason Chesney Archives at Johns Hopkins, the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill and the National Library of Medicine. Osler was instrumental in founding the Medical Library Association, and served as its president from 1901-1904.



IndexCat contains over 4.5 million references to over 3.7 million bibliographic items dating from over five centuries and covering subjects of the basic sciences, scientific research, civilian and military medicine, public health, and hospital administration. A wide range of materials can be discovered through IndexCat, including books, journal articles, dissertations, pamphlets, reports, newspaper clippings, case studies, obituary notices, letters, portraits, as well as rare books and manuscripts. Recently, two new collections, involving medieval scientific English and Latin texts, were made available through IndexCat. Opening a new frontier in historical research, these additional collections encompass over 42,000 records of incipits, or the beginning words of a medieval manuscript or early printed book. IndexCat users can search incipit data by manuscript, library, author/translator, title, subject, date and other information.

The History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine creates the IndexCat database, which is the online version of the Index Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General's Office.
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