McMaster University

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Dr. William Case

Dr. William Osler

By Charles G. Roland

Standing on the fourth floor of the Health Sciences building on the McMaster campus, and looking westwards, Dundas can be seen in the distance. It is possible to convince oneself that the home where Dr. William Osler grew up is almost in sight. There is an Osler Drive and an Osler Court in Dundas, and a Sir William Osler Hospital in Hamilton. The historical library at McGill University's Faculty of Medicine is the Osler Library.

Who was Osler? Why does his name appear so often, both locally and nationally? He was born to English parents in Bond Head, Ontario, in 1849. The Osler family was large, compelling their minister-father to move to Dundas when young Will was eight. Thus his formative years were spent in Dundas, receiving much of his early education in schools still standing. He began to learn microscopy studying specimens from the Desjardins Canal.

He entered university in Toronto, switching from the church to medicine and ultimately moving to Montreal to complete the final two years, becoming MD in 1872. After some postgraduate education in Europe, Osler returned to Dundas. There, he was locum tenens to a local practitioner, and also spent some time at the Hamilton City Hospital.

Soon, however, he was called to teach at McGill, which he did with distinction from 1874 to 1884. While there, he began to develop a national, and then international, reputation as a sagacious physician and as a teacher with great empathy for his students.

From Montreal, Osler moved to Philadelphia in 1885, then to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 1889, as head of medicine in the newly founded medical school and hospital. He helped make Johns Hopkins the best medical school in North America by a wide margin. His medical contributions were numerous, including his highly influential textbook, The Principles and Practice of Medicine, first issued in 1892. But his teaching became much more personal also: he worked to introduce the concept of the student at the bedside, rather than constantly listening to lectures. This approach swept the continent over the next twenty years. At the McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences, this approach was incorporated and enlarged upon from its founding at the end of the 1960s.

Indeed, much of the McMaster innovative approach to teaching can be traced to forward-looking suggestions and practices stemming from Osler's work from 1889 through 1905. In that year he moved to Oxford, England, to accept the highly prestigious position of Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. He ended his career at Oxford, his charismatic persona facilitating numerous advances in teaching and in scholarship. He became Sir William in 1911. On 29 December 1919 he died in Oxford with pneumonia and empyema.

Lung diseases were long of great interest to Osler, so it is perhaps fitting that it was these that carried him off. But he was interested in disease and its effects on human beings over the entire range of ill-health and sickness. In later years, students of the Oslerian contributions have named him, variously, the Father of Dermatology, the Father of Gastroenterology, and so on. He wrote clearly and perceptively over a medical career of forty-seven years, and became the best-known and best-respected physician in the English-speaking world - and beyond it. Yet he remained a modest, approachable man - generous with his time and knowledge for students, colleagues, and his innumerable friends.

Osler read widely, both in medicine and in literature. He collected a distinguished library, chiefly representing the classics of the history of our profession — now McGill's Osler Library. He believed that a rounded, balanced medical practitioner needed a strong grounding in his profession's history.

Osler was the ideal humane practitioner, empathetic, sympathetic, supportive, and honest without destroying hope. These attributes McMaster attempts to stimulate in its students, and has done so from the beginning. Osler might well be identified as the Father of Patient-Based Education.

Osler Quotes

  • Medicine is a noble heritage. You enter a noble heritage, made so by no efforts of your own, but by the generations of men who have unselfishly sought to do the best they could for suffering mankind. Much has been done, much remains to do.
  • Learn medicine at the bedside.
  • In teaching, emphasize methods, not facts. We expect too much of the student and we try to teach him too much. Give him good methods and a proper point of view, and all other things will be added, as his experience grows.
  • Come to your teachers for advice.
  • Be ready to say, "I do not know."
  • The teacher still his a lot to learn. It is a good many years since I sat on the benches, but I am happy to say that I am still a medical student, and still feel that I have much to learn.
  • Medicine has a glorious future. And not only in what has been actually accomplished in unraveling the causes of disease, in perfecting methods of prevention, and in wholesale relief of suffering, but also in the unloading of old formulae and in the substitution of the scientific spirit of free inquiry for cast iron dogmas we see a promise of still greater achievement and of a more glorious future.