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Sir William Osler

Sir William Osler

The Canadian physician Sir William Osler (1849-1919) was outstanding in the principles and practice of medicine, contributed writings of classical quality, and collected an impressive library on the history of medicine.

William Osler was born in Tecumseh, Ontario, on July 12, 1849. His father was a clergyman, so his upbringing was in a religious atmosphere. The influence of Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, however, turned him toward agnosticism in his days at Trinity College, Toronto. He studied to be a doctor, first at the Toronto School of Medicine and then at McGill University, where he graduated in 1872. Further studies were at University College, London, and at medical centers in Berlin and Vienna. After returning to Canada he accepted the chair of physiology and pathology at McGill, where he continued research in pathology, working on freshwater polyzoa and parasites; he studied hog cholera in 1878-1880.

Osler held the chair of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania from 1884 to 1889, when he went to Baltimore as professor of the principles and practice of medicine and as physician-in-chief at the university hospital. There he joined William H. Welch, William Halsted, and Howard Kelly to form a brilliant medical team sometimes called the "Big Four" of Johns Hopkins. In 1905 Osler was appointed regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, England. However, he remained in constant demand at home and abroad for lectures. The classical flavor of his speech and writing, combined with its wit and insight, has hardly been equaled among medical scholars. He also collected an unusual medical history library of rare books. His library room was transported and restored at the McGill Medical School in Montreal to preserve intact his valuable collection.

Many distinctions and honors came Osler's way, including a baronetcy in 1911. His humanitarianism was exemplified by his criticism of war, which took the life of his only child, Revere, in 1917. Osler died at Oxford on Dec. 29, 1919.

Osler's books include Principles and Practice of Medicine (1892), an inimitable textbook for many years because of its thoroughness, style, bits of wisdom, and human touches. It went through numerous editions and was printed in 4 languages. Other significant works were Science and Immortality (1904) and A Way of Life (1914).

Further Reading

A biography of Osler that won the Pulitzer Prize for its physician-author in 1926 is Harvey Cushing, The Life of Sir William Osler (2 vols., 1925). Edith Gittings Reid, The Great Physician: A Short Life of Sir William Osler (1931), is largely for popular reading. Other biographies are Walter Reginald Bett, Osler: The Man and the Legend (1951); Viola Whitney Pratt, Famous Doctors: Osler, Banting, Penfield (1956); and Iris Noble, The Doctor Who Dared, William Osler (1959).

Additional Sources

Howard, R. Palmer, The chief, Doctor William Osler, Canton, MA, U.S.A.: Science History Publications, 1983.

Wagner, Frederick B., The twilight years of Lady Osler: letters of a doctor's wife, Canton, MA: Science History Publications, U.S.A., 1985. □

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Osler, Sir William

Sir William Osler (ō´slər), 1849–1919, Canadian physician, M.D. McGill Univ., 1872. Renowned as a physician and as a medical historian, he was also the most brilliant and influential teacher of medicine in his day. He was professor at McGill (1875–84), the Univ. of Pennsylvania (1884–89), Johns Hopkins (1889–1904), and Oxford (from 1905). In 1911 he was knighted. His many medical observations include those on blood platelets and on the abnormally high red blood cell count in polycythemia. He wrote The Principles and Practice of Medicine (1892), one of the most prestigious medical textbooks in modern times, often revised, and A Concise History of Medicine (1919).

See Aphorisms from His Bedside Teachings and Writings (W. B. Bean, ed. 1950); biographies by H. Cushing (1925) and E. G. Reid (1931); bibliography by R. L. Golden and C. G. Roland (1988).

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Sir William Osler

Sir William Osler

1849-1919

Canadian Physician and Professor of Medicine

Canadian William Osler influenced the establishment of medical education in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. An outstanding clinician, he sought to lead physicians away from textbooks and to the bedsides of patients. He also foresaw the rise of medical specialists, a trend that did not take root until the end of the nineteenth century when improved travel allowed patients to more conveniently reach a specialist.

Born July 12, 1849, in Bond Head, Canada, Osler was the youngest of nine children of an Anglican missionary. He considered becoming a priest but decided upon medicine, receiving his doctor of medicine at McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, in 1872. He was recognized early in his career for his investigations of blood corpuscles and platelets, the cells responsible for blood clotting. He continued his education in London, Berlin, and Vienna, and returned to Canada as a general practitioner in Dondas and lecturer at McGill. His great interest was pathology, and he spent much time in the postmortem laboratory. However, he always emphasized that physicians should get to know the patients themselves. He constantly repeated that it is more important to know what sort of patient has the disease than to know what sort of disease the patient has. At that time Western physicians were moving toward depersonalization, placing greater focus on the afflictions—lesions and diseases—of the body rather then the person.

In 1884 Osler accepted a position at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. There he was given carte blanche to develop a curriculum in clinical medicine. In Philadelphia he helped organize the Association of American Physicians. In 1888 Osler was invited and accepted an invitation to become the first professor of medicine at the new Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. There he was instrumental in developing the curriculum and clinical program that made that institution one of the most famous medical schools in the world. Students were encouraged to study their patients in the wards and laboratory, and then to present their findings to a head doctor and to other students. This pattern of help and consultation spread to other medical schools. During the first few years, while there were still no students, Osler wrote his famous text, The Principles and Practice of Medicine (1892), which encouraged medical students to go into clinical medicine.

In 1897 Frederick T. Gates (1853-1929), a newly appointed director of a philanthropic foundation, read the textbook and used the principles as a basis for the establishment of the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York.

While visiting Oxford in 1904, Osler was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine, an honor reserved for British citizens; Osler qualified through his Canadian citizenship. There Osler used his time to teach, lecture, and write prolifically. He was honored by receiving the baronet title, becoming Sir William Osler.

Osler was an energetic man with a dynamic and magnetic personality. His goal was to develop the human and caring side of medicine. He married Grace Goss, widow of a colleague in Philadelphia, and great-granddaughter of Paul Revere. When their one son, Revere, was killed in World War I, Osler became very depressed and lost his spirit. Osler died December 29, 1919, in Oxford, of pneumonia. His outstanding library as well as his personal books and papers were given to McGill University.

Medical terminology has immortalized Osler in the following terms: Osler's nodes, red and tender swellings on the hands related to heart problems; Osler-Vaquez disease, a build up of red blood cells or polycythemia; Osler's maneuver, a way of compressing the radial artery; Osler-Rendu-Weber disease, a hereditary disorder marked by nosebleeds.

EVELYN B. KELLY

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