By Susan Speaker
I was pleased when the Profiles in Science team was asked to develop a site featuring Sir William Osler (1849-1919). Osler, a major figure during a transformative period in medicine, developed America’s first modern clinical internship program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and wrote the first comprehensive, science-based medical textbook. I looked forward to revisiting that earlier era of medical history (most of the Profiles stories take place later in the twentieth century), and I also looked forward to working with our colleagues at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University.
I have to admit, however, that I didn’t expect to like Dr. Osler. Why? Because in the history of medicine, Osler is a Great Man—capital “G,” capital “M.” He was legendary during his lifetime, and for nearly a century, he’s been practically a deity in some medical circles. Often called the “father of modern medicine,” and the “greatest physician of all time,” his name is still spoken and his words quoted in reverent tones. While there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging and admiring someone’s significant achievements, most historians trained since the 1970s balk at the idea of the glorified Great Man, and at the simplistic (though popular) idea that history is made by Great Men. We see history as a complex process driven by multiple agents and circumstances; that is, the most visible historical actors, exceptional as they might be, always have a lot of help. Likewise, historians don’t use pedestals much anymore—we examine our subjects “warts and all.” And it turns out that talented, driven high-achievers can be as prone to the “warts” of arrogance, chauvinism, bullying, psychopathology, etc. as lesser mortals. I approached my study of Dr. Osler, therefore, with a healthy professional skepticism.
However, as I read the two major biographies of Osler (one by Cushing and one by Bliss) and his own letters, articles, and speeches, I was surprised to discover that though he was indeed an energetic, hardworking, brilliant diagnostician and teacher, he was also a generous, deeply humane man with remarkably few “warts.” Here are a few of the things I found to like about Osler:
- He believed that the practice of medicine requires not just scientific knowledge but compassion, empathy, and caring—an idea he explored in many of his addresses to medical graduates. Equally important, he exemplified this philosophy in his own practice.
- Throughout his career, he treated his students well, not a trivial thing in medical school environments where students were routinely abused or neglected by faculty. Osler expected students to work hard, but he also remembered their names, welcomed them to his home, and mentored them conscientiously.
- He treated his family well, too, including his young nieces and nephews, to whom he regularly wrote charming, silly letters.
- His voluminous correspondence shows that once he took an interest in a person or an institution, he was a friend for life. Although his career took him from Montreal to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Oxford, he never really left anyone behind when he moved, and never stopped caring about the progress of institutions he’d been part of.
Looking into Osler’s life, I came to understand why his colleagues and disciples put him on a pedestal. They honored his outstanding accomplishments, but also loved him because he was just a truly decent human being. Still, I wonder if Osler would be comfortable with this deification. Although he knew his own worth, he wasn’t ever a status-seeker. In fact, his well-known sense of humor was characterized by an irreverent streak that often poked fun at arrogance and pomposity. The staff at the Chesney Medical Archives likes to tell the story of how, one Christmas, they decorated their bust of Dr. Osler with garlands and a small wreath, but reconsidered after an eminent cardiologist chided them about this “sacrilege.” Knowing the Great Man better now, I’d bet that Osler would have laughed—he might even have added a hat to the ensemble.
*The biographies are: Michael Bliss, William Osler: A Life in Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Harvey Cushing, The Life of Sir William Osler, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925.)
Susan Speaker, PhD, is Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.