Book review – William Osler

William Osler: A Life in Medicine
By Michael Bliss
(University of Toronto Press; $50.00)

One day in autumn, 1997, in a medical library at Montreal’s McGill University, a first year student placed a bouquet near a plaque honouring of the man whose name the library bears, William Osler. The student also left a card asking Osler’s blessing on his studies. There are many, inside and outside medicine who, like the youth, approach the memory of William Osler as if at an altar. “He is nothing less,” wrote a reverential student of his life in 1949, “than proof positive of the perfectibility of man.” Now, in his new biography, the respected Canadian historian Michael Bliss writes of Osler: “No one today would presume to master as much of medicine as Osler reached and grasped… he may never be surpassed as English-speaking medicine’s most inspirational father-figure, mentor and role model.”

William Osler was born in Bond Head, a village near Toronto in 1849, son of Anglican minister Featherstone Osler and his wife Ellen who had come to the Upper Canada frontier from England. His childhood was happy and wholesome, but showed little sign of his brilliant future. For a ief time, he thought he’d follow his father into the ministry but, absorbed by his passion for natural science, he entered medical studies in 1868, apparently with no scholarship. In relatively short time he was to become a doctor of enormous, international reputation — the world’s most renowned physician.

Michael Bliss lays out in fine detail the illustrious life of a towering figure of Canada’s past. Osler’s life was consumed by teaching and practicing at places such as McGill where he graduated in the early 1870s, the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania where he went in 1884, Johns Hopkins University of Baltimore which he helped make world famous for its medical school. He crowned his career, fittingly enough, by being named Regius Professor at the medical faculty at Oxford in 1905, thereby qualifying as a world statesman of medicine. Dr. Bliss brings to the task, not just his scrupulous scholarship and clear, graceful prose, but his medical knowledge, evidenced in his previous books The Discovery of Insulin, and Banting: A Biography. His treatment of Osler is thorough and sensitive, sympathetic and objective. It thus has great credibility and force. William Osler, a Life in Medicine, is a landmark in Canadian biographical literature.

The foundation of Osler’s accomplishments was his skill at the autopsy table. He was first and foremost, a great pathologist – a field of medicine from which we shrink, given our innate fears surrounding death and the dead. But in medicine’s early years, it was the main doorway to discovery. It’s still important, not just revealing the cause of death, but opening avenues to understanding illnesses and infirmities. “His joy at finding something new or unusual was quickly shared with us and enjoyed by us,” recalls one of the students who watched him dissect.

But it was in the role of teacher that he became paramount — lecturing, writing, seeing patients as he could. And his far-reaching intellect made him a man of broad cultural interests. By the time he reached Oxford, his personal library consisted of more than 7,000 books — including first editions of Shelley, Keats and others whose works he often quoted in essays and lectures.

In 1917, he and his wife encountered profound tragedy. After worrying day and night about their only son serving in the First World War, they were devastated to receive news of his death. One can sense that from that moment, William Osler began to die. “It is heartbreaking,” wrote his sad wife to a friend, “to hear him sobbing hour after hour…” He took ill in autumn, 1919 and the end came peacefully the end of December.

Osler’s place in history makes the reader wonder if we’ll ever see his like again: brilliant, modest, morally unblemished and almost entirely dedicated to others. As Michael Bliss writes: “His special satisfaction and enduring example came in the quest and camaraderie of healing, struggling to realize the gospel of helping to make it possible for men and women and children to have more time and less pain. This was and is a life well lived.”