This Week in History

Archives

Sir William Osler, an Exceptional Doctor

For the week of Monday December 24, 2001

On December 29, 1919, Sir William Osler, a Canadian doctor with an international reputation, died at the age of 70. Osler was an educator, writer and practitioner, and is famous for his remarkable life and his innovative approach to clinical medicine.

William Osler, ca. 1880

William Osler, ca. 1880
© McGill University Archives /
Photographic Collection / PR-008335

Born in Ontario in 1849, the young William Osler studied medicine in Toronto and at McGill University before completing his training in Europe. His success in diagnosing diseases of the heart, blood and lungs made him a general practitioner in great demand. Although known for his diverse research and qualifications, his greatest fame was in the fields of education and writing.

William Osler taught at McGill University from 1874 to 1884, then at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where the new school of medicine quickly became famous under his direction. His career as a professor reached its peak when he was appointed Regius Chair of Medicine in 1905, at England's prestigious Oxford University. At a time when it was still possible to obtain a diploma without examining many patients, Osler attempted to improve the students' on-the-job training. He downplayed lectures in favour of visiting patients' bedsides and strengthened post-graduate training, both of which helped to establish the medical program still in place today.

Theatre clinic by Sir Wiliam Osler, 1905

Theatre clinic by Sir Wiliam Osler, 1905
© McGill University Archives /
Photographic Collection / PN-023570

Osler firmly believed that patients' moods affect their healing. Wanting to give clinical medicine a humanist approach, he taught future doctors the importance of an attentive ear and caring patient relationships. His sympathetic approach in the face of suffering, his optimism and energy, particularly in caring for sick children, made him a role model for his students.

Osler was a prolific author with wide public acclaim. His manual for general medicine, The Principles and Practice of Medicine, was published in 1892 and became an authority for more than thirty years. His writings demonstrated the ineffectiveness of many treatments at the time and encouraged the founding of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. As an amateur historian, he wrote many articles on medical history and built up a large collection of books, that he willed to McGill University.

His brilliant career, innovative teaching style and great humanity remain a source of inspiration to the medical community. Recognized as a person of national historic importance, William Osler is remembered with a plaque at McGill University.

Date Modified: