Bliss, Michael. William Osler: A Life in Medicine. New York: Oxford, 1999.

 

Bliss, Michael. William Osler: A Life in Medicine. New York: Oxford, 1999.

William Osler was undoubtedly one of the outstanding physicians of the years 1885-1919, a time
of enormous change in the medical profession. He was not only privy to these changes but
indeed, a participant and a driving force in these enormous changes. He was born in rural Canada
of two Anglican missionaries to that country. His family was large and several of his siblings
became distinguished members of the bar, banking, and politics in Canada. He earned his
medical degree from McGill University - at a time when that was not particularly difficult - but it
was soon apparent that he was an "outstanding" physician indeed. At age 22 he was given
degrees in medicine and surgery and, thereafter, became a leading physician in Canada, the
United States and England.

Let me emphasize that Osler was the model of a professional man: he was loyal to his confreres
in medicine and to his professional obligations. He was, as a very young man, at the apex of the
profession: McGill in Canada, at Pennsylvania and, most important, at the Johns Hopkins
Medical College, and finally, he was the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. It
was in these positions that Osler came to define - and to be - the ideal physician. And believe me,
he had the personality to be the ideal physician. He had the gift of being able to remember names,
dates and places and he could pick up on a conversation with an individual in a way that made it
a "remarkable occasion" for his listener. He was warm and gracious and he was competent and
even when he did make mistakes, he was capable to getting out of them. He wrote THE standard
textbook for the practicing physician, a book which made Osler a wealthy man. He also had a
good income from a consulting practice. Oh, yes, his patients loved him too.

What is most important to me is that Osler was defined as the ideal physician at the Johns
Hopkins at the very time that important institution came to be regarded as the model for medical
education throughout the Unites States though, after reading histories of the place, one wonders
why! When the Flexnor brothers, Abraham and Simon, were using Carnegie and Rockefeller
money to reorganize medicine (1905-1920), they were also using the Johns Hopkins clinician as
their ideal physician. Oh, yes, there were other physicians at the medical school but Osler - for
whatever reasons - was identified as the leading clinician - the others had enormous flaws (which
is a fascinating story in itself). To put this view simply: Osler got labeled and psychologists and
others have been trying to understand "why" ever since. The point is not "why" but "who labeled
him?" And THAT's interesting: his devoted followers - and there are many, many of them today
- have written and are still writing of his "greatness." The labelers are still trying to fashion
THEIR ideal of what a medical man should be.

Osler wrote a great deal in addition to his textbook: he contributed innumerable articles to
medical journals. According to Bliss, he wrote during his lunch, his dinner, and at any moment in
which he had a free moment. He was also a fine orator and was often invited to the "best" places
to speak and to identify the new model for medicine that he was fashioning. His popularity
contributed enormously to his "wisdom."

There is no question in my mind that he was a VERY NICE GUY but he was, first and foremost,
a professional with all the benefits and the costs of that identity. The other physicians at Hopkins
in his day were hardly models of professionalism: drug addicts, money-minded, and just plain
hustlers. Osler, the nice person, is the guy everyone wants to remember but the others have their
heirs too.