William Osler Biography (1849-1919)

Medical educator

After Osler's death at the age of 70, the prestigious British medical journalThe Lancet described him as the most significant medical personalityof his day. Oddly, this giant of the healing profession was not known for anybreakthrough discovery. Rather, through persistence and a powerful personality, Osler inspired doctors worldwide to adopt a more humanistic approach of medicine focused on patients rather than profits. He has been described as "the model of a cultured, articulate, insatiably curious, highly principled physician."

Born at Bond Head, Ontario, Osler was one of nine children fathered by an Anglican clergyman. His medical career is jokingly said to have started with a surgical procedure on his sister Chattie, conducted at a Sunday School picnicwhen he was just five. As Osler was trying to chop kindling wood, Chattie repeatedly put her finger on the chopping block to annoy him. After warning her,he proceeded to cut off the tip of her finger.

Osler's formal education also had a less-than-distinguished beginning. Starting a lifelong habit of practical jokes, he hid all the desks in the attic ofthe one-room schoolhouse. On another occasion he locked a gaggle of geese inthe school. These pranks were rewarded by expulsion and Osler was sent to anAnglican boarding school in Weston, Ontario, where he managed to surpass hisearlier mischief. There, he was involved in barricading an unpopular school matron in her room, which then was then filled with smoke from burning mustard, molasses, and pepper. The housekeeper was almost asphyxiated, causing a Toronto newspaper to report "Pupils turn Outlaws." Osler was briefly jailed overthat incident but was spared further punishment by the persuasive skills ofhis older brother Featherston, who was starting what would become a brilliantcareer as a criminal lawyer.

Despite his mischievous activities, Osler originally intended to follow his father into the clergy. He was diverted from that goal, however, by the founder of the Weston school, Father Johnson "who delighted in the woods in springtime, and told us about the frog-spawn and the caddis worms, and who....showedus with the microscope the marvels in a drop of dirty pond water."

"No more dry husks for me after such a diet," Osler wrote. "From the study ofnature to the study of man was an easy step." Also at Weston, Osler was profoundly moved reading Thomas Browne's Religio Medici. He later described Browne as a "life-long mentor" and commented that "no book has had so enduring an influence on my life."

Osler started his medical studies at the University of Toronto, later transferring to McGill University in Montreal. There, he performed more than 1,000 autopsies, carefully recording his findings and applying them to patient care.Osler graduated from McGill in 1872. After two years of further study in Europe, he returned to Canada and was appointed by McGill, first as a medical lecturer, and the following year as professor of medicine.

After 10 years in Montreal, Osler went to the University of Pennsylvania as professor of clinical medicine. Then, in 1888, he was appointed as physician-in-chief of the new Johns Hopkins Hospital, which grew into one of the world'smost respected medical centers.

At Johns Hopkins, Osler trained more than 1,000 medical students who proudlydubbed themselves "first-generation Oslerians." Over time, Osler and three other founders at Johns Hopkins transformed the way in which medicine is studied. Believing that the best learning occurs at bedsides, Osler opened the hospital wards to students and encouraged them to learn by doing. Assigned to wards as clinical clerks, students performed physical examinations, prepared extensive case histories, and presented them for criticism.

Using a term derived from his early interest in divinity, Osler taught that medicine is a "calling." " He once told a group of medical students, "You arein this profession as a calling, not as a business . . . Once you get down toa purely business level, your influence is gone and the true light of your life is dimmed. You must work in the missionary spirit, with a breadth of charity that raises you far above the petty jealousies of life." Osler also emphasized that medical school was just the beginning of a lifetime commitment tolearning, and he continued using the term "fellow students" long after he hadbecome an esteemed teacher.

Osler wrote one of the most successful textbooks in medical history. His 1892Principles and Practice of Medicine was published in eight editions and translated into four other languages. After his death, it continued in print with numerous editions produced by other editors.

Although he is best known as a bedside teacher and for his efforts to marry medicine with the humanities, Osler was responsible for some scientific advances. In 1873 he identified blood platelets as a third type of blood corpuscle.He also did research on malaria, pneumonia, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease, and other medical conditions.

By 1903, Osler had suffered what is now known as burnout, and in 1905 he accepted the less-strenuous but equally prestigious position of Regius Professorof Medicine at England's Oxford University. His reduced duties at Oxford allowed him to pursue his interest in the humanities, especially the history of medicine. His A Concise History of Medicine was published in 1919, thesame year Osler died from complications of pneumonia.

Throughout his life, Osler was an avid collector of books, urging medical students to "start at once a bed-side library and spend the last half-hour of the day in communion with the saints of humanity." After his death, his large collection was presented to McGill University in Montreal. There, it is specially housed in the Osler Library. Osler's ashes rest behind a wood panel in the library's central room, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling books.

Osler's love of books and his philosophy of medicine were both summarized ina speech he gave to dedicate a new section of the Boston Medical Library: "Tostudy the phenomena of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all."

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