William Osler

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Sir William Osler

William Osler c1912.jpg
Osler, c.1912
Born(1849-07-12)July 12, 1849
DiedDecember 29, 1919(1919-12-29) (aged 70)
Oxford, England, UK
United Kingdom
Nationality Canadian
Alma mater McGill University
Scientific career
Fieldsphysician, pathologist, internist, educator, bibliophile, author and historian
Osler signature.jpg

Sir William Osler, 1st Baronet, FRS FRCP ( /ˈɒzlər/ ; July 12, 1849 – December 29, 1919) was a Canadian physician and one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Osler created the first residency program for specialty training of physicians, and he was the first to bring medical students out of the lecture hall for bedside clinical training. [1] He has frequently been described as the Father of Modern Medicine and one of the "greatest diagnosticians ever to wield a stethoscope". [2] [3] Osler was a person of many interests, who in addition to being a physician, was a bibliophile, historian, author, and renowned practical joker. One of his achievements was the founding of the History of Medicine Society (previously section) of the Royal Society of Medicine, London. [4]

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the UK Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

Canadians citizens of Canada

Canadians are people identified with the country of Canada. This connection may be residential, legal, historical or cultural. For most Canadians, several of these connections exist and are collectively the source of their being Canadian.

Physicians in Canada

Physicians and surgeons play an important role in the provision of health care in Canada. They are responsible for the promotion, maintenance, and restoration of health through the study, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of disease, injury, and other physical and mental impairments. As Canadian medical schools solely offer the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees, these represent the degrees held by the vast majority of physicians and surgeons in Canada, though some have a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) from the United States or Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery from Europe.




William's great-grandfather, Edward Osler, was variously described as either a merchant seaman or a pirate. [5] One of William's uncles (Edward Osler (1798–1863)), a medical officer in the Royal Navy, wrote the Life of Lord Exmouth and the poem The Voyage. (Osler, Edward, 1798–1863. The Voyage : a poem, written at sea, and in the West Indies, and illustrated by papers on natural history. London : Longman, 1830). William Osler's father, Featherstone Lake Osler (1805–1895), the son of a shipowner at Falmouth, Cornwall, was a former Lieutenant in the Royal Navy who served on HMS Victory. In 1831 Featherstone Osler was invited to serve on HMS Beagle as the science officer on Charles Darwin's historic voyage to the Galápagos Islands, but he turned it down because his father was dying. In 1833, Featherstone Osler announced he wanted to become a minister of the Church of England. [6]

Falmouth, Cornwall town, civil parish and port on the River Fal in Cornwall, England

Falmouth is a town, civil parish and port on the River Fal on the south coast of Cornwall, England, United Kingdom. It has a total resident population of 21,797.

HMS <i>Victory</i> First-rate 1765 ship of the line of the Royal Navy

HMS Victory is a 104-gun first-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, ordered in 1758, laid down in 1759 and launched in 1765. She is best known for her role as Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

HMS <i>Beagle</i> Cherokee-class 10-gun brig-sloop of the Royal Navy

HMS Beagle was a Cherokee-class 10-gun brig-sloop of the Royal Navy, one of more than 100 ships of this class. The vessel, constructed at a cost of £7,803, was launched on 11 May 1820 from the Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames. In July of that year she took part in a fleet review celebrating the coronation of King George IV of the United Kingdom, and for that occasion is said to have been the first ship to sail completely under the old London Bridge. There was no immediate need for Beagle so she "lay in ordinary", moored afloat but without masts or rigging. She was then adapted as a survey barque and took part in three survey expeditions.

As a teenager, Featherstone Osler was aboard HMS Sappho when it was nearly destroyed by Atlantic storms and left adrift for weeks. Serving in the Navy, he was shipwrecked off Barbados. In 1837 Featherstone Osler officially retired from the Navy and emigrated to Canada, becoming a "saddle-bag minister" in rural Upper Canada. When Featherstone Osler and his bride, Ellen Free Picton, arrived in Canada, they were nearly shipwrecked again on Egg Island in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The Oslers had several children, including William, Britton Bath Osler, and Sir Edmund Boyd Osler.

HMS <i>Sappho</i> (1806)

HMS Sappho was a Cruizer class brig-sloop built by Jabez Bailey at Ipswich and launched in 1806. She defeated the Danish brig Admiral Yawl in a single-ship action during the Gunboat War, and then had a notably successful two months of prize-taking in the first year of the War of 1812. She was wrecked in 1825 off the Canadian coast and then broken up in 1830.

Barbados country in the Caribbean

Barbados is an island country in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies, in the Caribbean region of North America. It is 34 kilometres in length and up to 23 km (14 mi) in width, covering an area of 432 km2 (167 sq mi). It is situated in the western area of the North Atlantic and 100 km (62 mi) east of the Windward Islands and the Caribbean Sea; therein, Barbados is east of the Windwards, part of the Lesser Antilles, roughly at 13°N of the equator. It is about 168 km (104 mi) east of both the countries of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and 180 km (110 mi) south-east of Martinique and 400 km (250 mi) north-east of Trinidad and Tobago. Barbados is outside the principal Atlantic hurricane belt. Its capital and largest city is Bridgetown.

Upper Canada 19th century British colony in present-day Ontario

The Province of Upper Canada was a part of British Canada established in 1791 by the Kingdom of Great Britain, to govern the central third of the lands in British North America, formerly part of the Province of Quebec since 1763. Upper Canada included all of modern-day Southern Ontario and all those areas of Northern Ontario in the Pays d'en Haut which had formed part of New France, essentially the watersheds of the Ottawa River or Lakes Huron and Superior, excluding any lands within the watershed of Hudson Bay. The "upper" prefix in the name reflects its geographic position along the Great Lakes, mostly above the headwaters of the Saint Lawrence River, contrasted with Lower Canada to the northeast.

Early life

William Osler was born in Bond Head, Canada West (now Ontario) on July 12, 1849, and raised after 1857 in Dundas, Ontario. (He was called William after William of Orange, who won the Battle of the Boyne on July 12, 1690.) His mother, who was very religious, prayed that Osler would consecrate to God's service and, in 1867, her son announced he would follow his father's footsteps into the ministry. [7] He was educated at Trinity College School (then located in Weston, Ontario) and entered Trinity College, Toronto (now part of the University of Toronto) in the autumn of 1867.

Ontario Province of Canada

Ontario is one of the 13 provinces and territories of Canada and is in east-central Canada. It is Canada's most populous province accounting for 38.3 percent of the country's population, and is the second-largest province in total area. Ontario is fourth-largest jurisdiction in total area when the territories of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are included. It is home to the nation's capital city, Ottawa, and the nation's most populous city, Toronto, which is also Ontario's provincial capital.

Dundas, Ontario Dissolved municipality in Ontario, Canada

Dundas is a community and former town in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. It is nicknamed the Valley Town because of its topographical location at the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment on the Western edge of Lake Ontario. The population has been stable for decades at about twenty thousand, largely because it has not annexed rural land from the protected Dundas Valley Conservation Area.

William III of England 17th-century Stadtholder, Prince of Orange and King of England, Scotland and Ireland

William III, also widely known as William of Orange, was sovereign Prince of Orange from birth, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from 1672 and King of England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. As King of Scotland, he is known as William II. He is sometimes informally known in Northern Ireland and Scotland as "King Billy".

At the time, however, he was becoming increasingly interested in medical science, under the influence of James Bovell, and Rev. William Arthur Johnson, who both became major influences for Osler at this time, encouraging him to switch his career. [8] [9] [10] In 1868, Osler enrolled in the Toronto School of Medicine, [11] a privately owned institution, not part of the Medical Faculty of the University of Toronto. Osler lived with Bovell for a time, and through Johnson, he was introduced to the writings of Sir Thomas Browne; his Religio Medici caused a deep impression on him. [12] Osler left the Toronto School of Medicine after being accepted to the MDCM program at McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal and he received his medical degree (MDCM) in 1872.

James Bovell (1817–1880) was a prominent Canadian physician, microscopist, educator, theologian and minister.

Rev. William Arthur Johnson (1816–1880) was an amateur biologist, naturalist, microscopist, botanist, and ordained clergyman who lived in Canada.

University of Toronto university in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The University of Toronto is a public research university in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, located on the grounds that surround Queen's Park. It was founded by royal charter in 1827 as King's College, the first institution of higher learning in the colony of Upper Canada. Originally controlled by the Church of England, the university assumed the present name in 1850 upon becoming a secular institution. As a collegiate university, it comprises eleven colleges, which differ in character and history, each with substantial autonomy on financial and institutional affairs. It has two satellite campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga.


Following post-graduate training under Rudolf Virchow in Europe, Osler returned to the McGill University Faculty of Medicine as a professor in 1874. Here he created the first formal journal club. During this time, he also showed interest in comparative pathology and is considered the first to teach veterinary pathology in North America as part of a broad understanding of disease pathogenesis. In 1884, he was appointed Chair of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and in 1885, was one of the seven founding members of the Association of American Physicians, a society dedicated to "the advancement of scientific and practical medicine." When he left Philadelphia in 1889, his farewell address, "Aequanimitas", [13] was on the imperturbability (calm amid storm) and equanimity (moderated emotion, tolerance) necessary for physicians. [14]

Rudolf Virchow German doctor, anthropologist, public health activist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist and politician

Rudolf Ludwig Carl Virchow was a German physician, anthropologist, pathologist, prehistorian, biologist, writer, editor, and politician. He is known as "the father of modern pathology" and as the founder of social medicine, and to his colleagues, the "Pope of medicine". He received the Copley Medal in 1892. He was a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and was elected to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, but he declined to be ennobled as "von Virchow".

McGill University Faculty of Medicine medical school in Canada

The Faculty of Medicine is one of the constituent faculties of McGill University. It was established in 1829 after the Montreal Medical Institution was incorporated into McGill College as the College's first faculty; it was the first medical faculty to be established in Canada. The Faculty awarded McGill's first degree, and Canada's first medical degree to William Leslie Logie in 1833. His dissertation, "Medical inaugural dissertation on Cynanche trachealis" can be found in the McGill Library institutional repository, eScholarship@McGill.

A journal club is a group of individuals who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the academic literature, such as the scientific literature, medical literature, or philosophy literature. Journal clubs are usually organized around a defined subject in basic or applied research. For example, the application of evidence-based medicine to some area of medical practice can be facilitated by a journal club. Typically, each participant can voice their view relating to several questions such as the appropriateness of the research design, the statistics employed, the appropriateness of the controls that were used, etc. There might be an attempt to synthesize together the results of several papers, even if some of these results might first appear to contradict each other. Even if the results of the study are seen as valid, there might be a discussion of how useful the results are and if these results might lead to new research or to new applications.

Osler in 1909, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, holding Sir William Stirling Maxwell's copy of Vesalius's Tabulae Anotomicae William osler 1909.jpg
Osler in 1909, at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, holding Sir William Stirling Maxwell's copy of Vesalius's Tabulae Anotomicae

In 1889, he accepted the position as the first Physician-in-Chief of the new Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Shortly afterwards, in 1893, Osler was instrumental in the creation of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and became one of the school's first professors of medicine. Osler quickly increased his reputation as a clinician, humanitarian, and teacher. He presided over a rapidly expanding domain. In the hospital's first year of operation, when it had 220 beds, 788 patients were seen for a total of over 15,000 days of treatment. Sixteen years later, when Osler left for Oxford, over 4,200 patients were seen for a total of nearly 110,000 days of treatment. [15]

In 1905, he was appointed to the Regius Chair of Medicine at Oxford, which he held until his death. He was also a Student (Fellow) of Christ Church, Oxford.

In 1911, he initiated the Postgraduate Medical Association, of which he was the first President. [16] In the same year, Osler was named a baronet in the Coronation Honours List for his contributions to the field of medicine. [17]

The largest collection of Osler's letters and papers is at the Osler Library of McGill University in Montreal and a collection of his papers is also held at the United States National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. [18] [19]


Osler c. 1880 William Osler photograph.jpg
Osler c. 1880

Perhaps Osler's greatest influence on medicine was to insist that students learn from seeing and talking to patients and the establishment of the medical residency. The latter idea spread across the English-speaking world and remains in place today in most teaching hospitals. Through this system, doctors in training make up much of a teaching hospital's medical staff. The success of his residency system depended, in large part, on its pyramidal structure with many interns, fewer assistant residents and a single chief resident, who originally occupied that position for years. While at Hopkins, Osler established the full-time, sleep-in residency system whereby staff physicians lived in the administration building of the hospital. As established, the residency was open-ended, and long tenure was the rule. Doctors spent as long as seven or eight years as residents, during which time they led a restricted, almost monastic life.

He wrote in an essay "Books and Men" that "He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all." [20] His best-known saying was "Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis," which emphasises the importance of taking a good history. [2]

The contribution to medical education of which he was proudest was his idea of clinical clerkship – having third- and fourth-year students work with patients on the 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." Soon after arriving in Baltimore, Osler insisted that his medical students attend at bedside early in their training. By their third year they were taking patient histories, performing physicals and doing lab tests examining secretions, blood and excreta.

The Four Doctors by John Singer Sargent, 1905, depicts the four physicians who founded Johns Hopkins Hospital. The original hangs in the William H. Welch Medical Library of Johns Hopkins University.
From left to right: William Henry Welch, William Stewart Halsted, William Osler, Howard Kelly Four doctors.jpg
The Four Doctors by John Singer Sargent, 1905, depicts the four physicians who founded Johns Hopkins Hospital. The original hangs in the William H. Welch Medical Library of Johns Hopkins University.
From left to right: William Henry Welch, William Stewart Halsted, William Osler, Howard Kelly

He reduced the role of didactic lectures and once said he hoped his tombstone would say only, "He brought medical students into the wards for bedside teaching." He also 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." Osler fundamentally changed medical teaching in North America, and this influence, helped by a few such as the Dutch internist P.K. Pel, spread to medical schools across the globe.

Osler was a prolific author and a great collector of books and other material relevant to the history of medicine. He willed his library to the Faculty of Medicine of McGill University where it now forms the nucleus of McGill University's Osler Library of the History of Medicine, which opened in 1929. The printed and extensively annotated catalogue of this donation 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". [21] Osler was a strong supporter of libraries and served on the library committees at most of the universities at which he taught and was a member of the Board of Curators of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He was instrumental in founding the Medical Library Association in North America, alongside employee and mentee Marcia Croker Noyes, [22] 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 and Ireland [23] and also a president of the Bibliographical Society of London (1913). [24]

Osler was a prolific author and public speaker and his public speaking and writing were both done in a clear, lucid style. His most famous work, ' The Principles and Practice of Medicine' quickly became a key text to students and clinicians alike. It continued to be published in many editions until 2001 and was translated into many languages. [25] [26] It is notable in part for supporting the use of bloodletting as recently as 1923. [27] Though his own textbook was a major influence in medicine for many years, Osler described Avicenna as the "author of the most famous medical textbook ever written". He noted that Avicenna's Canon of Medicine remained "a medical bible for a longer time than any other work". [28] Osler's essays were important guides to physicians. The title of his most famous essay, "Aequanimitas", espousing the importance of imperturbability, is the motto on the Osler family crest and is used on the Osler housestaff tie and scarf at Hopkins.


Osler is well known in the field of gerontology for the speech he gave when leaving Hopkins to become the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. "The Fixed Period", given on February 22, 1905, included some controversial words about old age. Osler, who had a well-developed humorous side to his character, was in his mid-fifties when he gave the speech and in it he mentioned Anthony Trollope's The Fixed Period (1882), which envisaged a college where men retired at 67 and after being given a year to settle their affairs, would be "peacefully extinguished by chloroform". He claimed that, "the effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty" and it was downhill from then on. [29] Osler's speech was covered by the popular press which headlined their reports with "Osler recommends chloroform at sixty". The concept of mandatory euthanasia for humans after a "fixed period" (often 60 years) became a recurring theme in 20th century imaginative literature—for example, Isaac Asimov's 1950 novel Pebble in the Sky . In the 3rd edition of his Textbook, he also coined the description of pneumonia as "the old man's friend" since it allowed elderly individuals a quick, comparatively painless death. Coincidentally, Osler himself died of pneumonia.

Personal life and family

An inveterate prankster, he wrote several humorous pieces under the pseudonym "Egerton Yorrick Davis", even fooling the editors of the Philadelphia Medical News into publishing a report on the extremely rare phenomenon of penis captivus , on December 13, 1884. [30] The letter was apparently a response to a report on the phenomenon of vaginismus reported three weeks previously in the Philadelphia Medical News by Osler's colleague Theophilus Parvin. [31] Davis, a prolific writer of letters to medical societies, purported to be a retired U.S. Army surgeon living in Caughnawaga, Quebec (now Kahnawake), author of a controversial paper on the obstetrical habits of Native American tribes that was suppressed and unpublished. Osler would enhance Davis's myth by signing Davis's name to hotel registers and medical conference attendance lists; Davis was eventually reported drowned in the Lachine Rapids in 1884. [31]

Throughout his life, Osler was a great admirer of the 17th century physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne.

He died at the age of 70, on December 29, 1919 in Oxford, during the Spanish influenza epidemic, most likely of complications from undiagnosed bronchiectasis. [32] His wife, Grace, lived another nine years but succumbed to a series of strokes. Sir William and Lady Osler's ashes now rest in a niche in the Osler Library at McGill University. They had two sons, one of whom died shortly after birth. The other, Edward Revere Osler, was mortally wounded in combat in World War I at the age of 21, during the 3rd battle of Ypres (also known as the battle of Passchendaele). At the time of his death in August 1917, he was a second lieutenant in the (British) Royal Field Artillery; [33] Lt. Osler's grave is in the Dozinghem Military Cemetery in West Flanders, Belgium. [34] According to one biographer, Osler was emotionally crushed by the loss; he was particularly anguished by the fact that his influence had been used to procure a military commission for his son, who had mediocre eyesight. [35] Lady Osler (Grace Revere) was born in Boston in 1854; her paternal great-grandfather was Paul Revere. [36] In 1876, she married Samuel W. Gross, chairman of surgery at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Gross died in 1889 and in 1892 she married William Osler who was then professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

Osler was a founding donor of the American Anthropometric Society, a group of academics who pledged to donate their brains for scientific study. Osler's brain was taken to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia to join the Wistar Brain Collection. In April 1987 it was taken to the Mütter Museum, on 22nd Street near Chestnut in Philadelphia where it was displayed during the annual meeting of the American Osler Society. [37] [38]

In 1925, a biography of William Osler was written by Harvey Cushing, [39] who received the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for the work. A later biography by Michael Bliss was published in 1999. [35] In 1994 Osler was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. [40]


Osler lent his name to a number of diseases, signs and symptoms, as well as to a number of buildings that have been named for him. [41] [42]



A quote by Sir William Osler engraved in the stone wall within the Peace Chapel of the International Peace Garden (in Manitoba Canada and North Dakota, USA). Sir William Osler quote in stone.jpg
A quote by Sir William Osler engraved in the stone wall within the Peace Chapel of the International Peace Garden (in Manitoba Canada and North Dakota, USA).


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Charles Gordon Roland Charles Gordon "Chuck" Roland was born on January 25, 1933, in Winnipeg, Manitoba to Jack and Leona Roland. After a long and distinguished career as an author, editor, and Hannah Professor of the History of Medicine at McMaster University, Dr. Roland died at the age of 76 on June 9, 2009, in Burlington, Ontario.
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Aequanimitas was one of Sir William Osler's most famous essays, delivered to new doctors in 1889 as his farewell address at the Pennsylvania School of Medicine. It was also the name of his first book of essays. In the essay, Osler advocates two qualities "imperturbability" and "equanimity". Between 1932 and 1953, more than 150,000 copies were given to medical graduates.


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