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Sir William Osler

Prominent Canadian historian Michael Bliss has written the first major biography of Sir William Osler in over 70 years. Dr. Ken Flegel, an associate editor of CMAJ and an internist at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, interviewed Professor Bliss for eCMAJ.

You can listen to their complete conversation about Osler the icon and Osler the man (30 minutes) or you can select individual questions. You'll need RealAudio software, which can be downloaded free of charge.

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Complete interview [play audio]

Dr. Flegel's questions

  1. You're a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Toronto, an accomplished and well-published author and a well-respected commentator on the passing national scene. Why would you want to take on one of the icons of North American medicine? [play audio]

  2. Let's stay with the Harvey Cushing biography [of Osler] for a moment. Its tone was absolutely, unassailably reverential. I came away [from reading it] feeling that there was nothing more that could ever be said [about Osler], and I'm wondering if you didn't feel a little daunted taking on this project. [play audio]

  3. As I read [your] book ... it strikes me that the details of medicine and medical practice are woven intensively through the whole life of William Osler. Did you find as a historian that this added to the "daunt"? You had to reach up and grab both ends of this very rich life and try to understand them? [play audio]

  4. One of the features of your present biography that struck me is that you are more or less unafraid to make inferences about particular situations or to enlarge the context to paint the times a bit more realistically for the reader, on occasion even going on to some speculation. Do you agree that that's a feature of modern biographies and that you did it? [play audio]

  5. Osler was the son of immigrant parents and rose from what was essentially frontier territory to national prominence quite early in his life. In many ways his origins and his trajectory remind me of Abraham Lincoln, at least on the medical scene. I take it that there's very little disagreement that Lincoln had something special that [led to his success]. Do you think this is true of Osler, or was it merely a lucky sequence of circumstances? [play audio]

  6. I take it that we still agree, even after the end of the Bliss biography, that this was truly a great man and a great physician. What is the "but for" issue with William Osler? What is the one characteristic but for which he wouldn't have been the person that we remember? [play audio]

  7. I take it that you've essentially spent the last few years with William Osler. Would you ask this man home to dinner? [play audio]

  8. Osler was always on the move, and the moves always seemed to come at a time that strikes me as inopportune, when his professional life was flourishing. Why do you think he was like that? [play audio]

  9. One of the other aspects of Osler and his life is that his friendships and professional network were made up almost exclusively of men. Does this tell us something about William Osler or do his times explain this? [play audio]

  10. When Osler took up the Regius professorship in Oxford, I think he was a little bit lost for awhile and trying to find his way. The clinicians in Oxford and in England generally found him a little less than advertised at the bedside. I'm wondering if you could enlarge upon that. [play audio]

  11. One of the sad things about the end of Osler's life and his time in England was the First World War. Something about that whole scene, to say nothing of losing his son, seemed to weigh Osler down and break his spirit. Do you understand what it was? [play audio]

  12. There have been other outstanding physicians in the last 130 years, and there are some prominent physicians working now, but none of them seems as prominent as or likely to gain the prominence of a William Osler. Is this because of Osler or have the times passed when we elevated people to such prominence? [play audio]

  13. Thank you for writing this book. What comes next for Michael Bliss' pen (or is it a computer screen)? [play audio]


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