Frontispiece for publication titled Sir William Osler, Memorial Number: Appreciations and Reminiscences; last photograph taken of Sir William Osler
Sir William Osler, MD, 1905
Sir William Osler, October 29, 1881
Sir William Osler - writer, medical philosopher, historian and teacher - could well be considered the most influential figure in the history of medicine. In his day, he was certainly the most famous physician in the English-speaking world.
He was born in 1849 in the small town of Bond Head, north of Toronto, the eighth of nine children. In 1857, the family moved to Dundas, west of Toronto, where they lived for 25 years.
William had intended to follow in his father's footsteps and become an Anglican priest; in 1867, he enrolled in divinity studies at Toronto's Trinity College. During his first year, he was strongly influenced by one of his teachers who persuaded him to switch faculties and enroll in medicine at the University of Toronto. He completed his medical studies at McGill University in Montréal and graduated in 1872, top of his class.
A graduation gift from one of his brothers enabled Osler to travel to Europe, which was then the centre of the medical world. He pursued post-graduate studies first in London, then in Berlin and Vienna.
Dr. Osler returned to Canada in 1874 and joined the medical faculty at McGill, lecturing in medicine and pathology. Blessed with a charismatic personality and a keen interest in young people, he was very popular with his students and quickly gained a reputation as a brilliant teacher as well as an astute clinician. In recognition of his service to the medical community, he was elected a fellow of the British Royal College of Physicians in 1883, one of only two Canadians at the time.
In 1884, Dr. Osler accepted a position as professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the largest and most important medical school in the United States. There too, he won high praise from his students while continuing his intensive work in pathology. Five years later, when the new Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, opened, Osler was the top choice to become Chief of Medicine at the new medical school.
William Osler's years at Johns Hopkins were important ones. It was there that he first began to teach medical students at patients' bedsides rather than from a textbook. The method was already being taught in Europe, but it was a revolutionary idea in North America. Of his students, he said, "take him from the lecture-rooms, take him from the amphitheatre - put him in the out-patient department, put him in the wards."
Sir William Osler conducting a clinic at the Royal Victoria Hospital, McGill University, Montréal, 1906
While at Johns Hopkins, Osler revolutionized the medical curriculum of both American and Canadian schools and helped introduce a system of postgraduate medical training and education that remains the standard for the Western world.
It was during this period that William wrote some of his most important clinical papers and essays. Most notable of these was the textbook The Principles and Practice of Medicine: Designed for the Use of Practitioners and Students of Medicine, which was published in 1892 and established Osler as the leading authority on modern medicine. The text was translated into French, German, Spanish and Chinese and became the most important medical text for the next 40 years. When Osler left the school in 1905, he was acclaimed for having played a pivotal role in making the medical school one of the best of its time.
By the turn of the century, Dr. Osler had become the most influential physician in the English-speaking world and one of the most sought-after consultants in North America.
William Osler was 42 and still working in Baltimore when he met and married Grace Revere, great-granddaughter of the American patriot Paul Revere. They had two children. The first died at birth and the second, Edward Revere Osler, born in 1895, became his father's greatest joy.
In 1905, Dr. Osler was offered the most prestigious medical appointment in the English-speaking world - as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. The family left for England hoping for a quieter life, but it was not to be. Their home in Oxford quickly drew hundreds of visitors and students who arrived seeking advice from the famous doctor.
William used his time at Oxford to help found societies and journals, to write hundreds of articles and to collect books for his ever-expanding library of medical-historical tomes. He was also the recipient of many honorary degrees and in 1911, was knighted for his contributions to the field of medicine.
William and his wife, like thousands of others, watched the approach of war in 1914 with deep foreboding. They shared the sadness of many anxious parents when their own son, Revere, went off to fight in Europe with the Royal Field Artillery. In August 1917, the couple received the news they had dreaded throughout the war: their much-loved Revere had died of wounds from artillery fire while serving in Belgium. Sir William never recovered from the shock of losing his only son.
Sir William spent his last years carrying on a busy consultant's practice, writing, teaching and organizing and cataloguing the extensive library he whimsically named Bibliotheca Osleriana.
In 1919, two years after his son's death, Sir William, age 70, fell victim to the influenza epidemic. He lay ill for two months and died on December 29 of pneumonia. His wife, Grace, lived for another nine years and died in 1928, aged 74.
Sir William left a huge and lasting legacy. Perhaps foremost was the enduring impact he had on his colleagues and on generations of students. 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 is also remembered for the humanism he brought to the field of medicine. Most important for posterity is the fact that he bequeathed his magnificent library to McGill University, where it forms the nucleus of the university's Osler Library of the History of Medicine, opened in 1929. Sir William's ashes, together with those of his wife, lie peacefully there, among the books he treasured so much.