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Medicine: William Osler



     Dr. Sidney Raffel of Stanford Medical School is a distinguished graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School, of which William Osler was a star. He speaks of Osler with great admiration not only as a doctor but as a human. He regrets that many medical students at Stanford do not know who Osler was. This is especially unfortunate as Osler had an indirect tie with Stanford.
     Oxford University Press has just published a 600-page biography of him by Michael Bliss, entitled William Osler: A Life in Medicine. It should have a worldwide appeal, but especially so in Stanford, with which he had an indirect tie. Osler has a great appeal for me because I regard medicine as the noblest profession, and regret that much more publicity goes to modern popular writers like Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and artists like Picasso, who as humans were horrible people. Only a renewed sense of responsibility will save our civilization. Physicians have it to a degree which balances the lack of it in the latter group, the cult of whom makes one doubt the accuracy of the statement that you can't fool all the people all the time. Perhaps it is true however, since I suspect that many people feel as I do but are afraid to speak up for fear of being dismissed as unsophisticated, lowbrow, or reactionary.
     Osler (1849-1919) led a saintly life free from professional vanity, marred by the death of his son in 1917, killed in Flanders. Both he and Johns Hopkins were testimony to the importance of religion in developing a sense of responsibility. He was the eighth of the nine children of the Rev. Featherstone Osler, a former officer in the Royal Navy who took holy orders and emigrated to Canada with his pious wife. Osler received his medical degree from McGill University and then went to teach at the University of Pennsylvania.
     Johns Hopkins was a Baltimore businessman, a Quaker who devoted his fortune to charitable works and endowed the university bearing his name, with the first graduate school in the United States and an outstanding School of Medicine. Osler went there and from 1889 to 1905 served as physician-in-chief. He was a pioneer in encouraging women to study medicine, although he turned down an obnoxious Radcliffe graduate named Gertrude Stein. He was known as an unusually kind person. John P. McGovern and Chester Burns titled their 1974 book about him Humanism in Medicine, while the 1931 book by Edith G. Reid bears the title The Great Physician.
     One of his pupils was Clelia Mosher, who after graduation continued in pathological research under his tutelage at Baltimore Hospital. Osler was a caring physician who inspired his students to be sincerely interested in each patient.
     Clelia Mosher returned to Stanford as medical adviser to women, and later became famous for her study of the sexual life of women. There is an important archive of her writings at Stanford University, and Elizabeth Brownlee Griego drew on it heavily for her 1983 dissertation entitled A Part and Yet Apart: Clelia Duel Mosher and Professional Women at the Turn of the Century. Incidentally, Clelia Mosher built the Stanford campus home, "The Hesperides," where I am writing these lines. I am now investigating whether Osler had any direct ties to Stanford. In any case, all Stanford students should know about Osler. Indeed, he should be a model for the modern world, which sorely needs people like him.

Ronald Hilton - 2/5/00


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