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Douglas Fetherling - The Medical Humanist
by Douglas Fetherling

An anecdote is told about the time that Alan Wilkinson, until 1994 the curator of twentieth-century art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, made a business trip to Baltimore. Specifically, he had some art business to conduct at Johns Hopkins University. Over lunch with a few faculty and administrators, Wilkinson wondered aloud whether anyone there had heard of an ancestor of his who had been connected with the university long ago. According to the story, when they discovered who he was talking about, his hosts practically choked on their tiffin. Wilkinson is a collateral descendant of Sir William Osler (1849-1919), perhaps the most famous physician of the early years of the century and the one whose presence had made Johns Hopkins's medical school into a famous institution. Wilkinson wasn't sure that his forebear's renown still persisted beyond Canada, where Sir William was not only one of the great figures of the age but also part of a most remarkable family.

You won't find much background of this sort in Dr. Charles S. Bryan's well-intentioned but rather odd book Osler: Inspirations from a Great Physician (Oxford University Press, $57.50). Dr. Bryan, a distinguished U.S. medical historian and educator, begins with the perfectly sound idea that "most of today's young people, including medical students, can barely identify Osler." Accordingly, he sets out to make Sir William's "ideas and examples easily accessible to the present generation." Yet he seems to believe that Osler's most important attribute was his role, not as a scientific genius, master clinician and diagnostician, educational reformer, or exemplary humanist, but rather as a charismatic personality-in fact, as what people now call a motivational speaker. Accordingly, Dr. Bryan reduces his subject's career to a series of tiresome business-school commands ("Study Time Management", "Take the Long View", "Show Compassion", "Maintain Equanimity") that sound like a combination of Tony Robbins and Lao Tzu. Curious. Yet any book that seeks to rekindle the memory of this extraordinary Canadian is not be dismissed out of hand.

The future Sir William was one of eight children of a wonderfully named Anglican priest and writer, the Rev. Featherstone Lake Osler, of Bond Head, Upper Canada. He studied medicine at McGill and later, in 1874, joined the faculty there. As a student, he had been unimpressed by the universally accepted pedagogic methods-droning professors, mostly, sometimes in the lecture hall, sometimes in the operating theatre. He felt that medical school should put students in closer and more constant touch with patients: ergo, the "grand rounds" and other techniques in bedside medicine we now take for granted.

In Osler's view, medical students must treat the whole individual. This is one of today's most cherished clichés but it was an idea new to Western medicine back then. In practical terms, it meant that physicians needed to be humanists as well, conversant with religion, philosophy, literature. The gap between the arts and the sciences that C. P. Snow famously characterized as "the two cultures" was one that Osler had worked hard to bridge half a century earlier. One can easily trace his vision of the Shakespeare-reading physician down through figures as different as Norman Bethune and Wilder Penfield. The latter was once Osler's student; both of them, significantly, were also public personages in somewhat the same way as Osler, proud of their writing and lecturing skills, which they put to use in public causes.

Osler pretty much achieved his life's goals while still in his early forties, particularly with the textbook he published in 1892, The Principles & Practice of Medicine, which became the new standard. By that time he had gone to the U.S. after a decade of teaching in Montreal. He endowed his various institutions with enormous collections of valuable books (and, in the case of McGill, with his ashes as well), for he was also one of the great collectors of the era. Indeed, Bibliotheca Osleriana, the catalogue of the books he owned in the history of medicine, remains an important research tool in the field. Needless to say, he was also a fluent writer-in fact, something of a man-of-letters in that splendid Edwardian way. In time and diversity, his many books range from John Keats, the Apothecary Poet (1896) to Aequanimitas & Other Essays for Medical Students (1904) to Science & War (1915) to The Old Humanities & the New Science (1919). For several decades, the Oxford University Press kept a Selected Writings in print. Eventually, public life rather wore him out. In 1906 he accepted the singular post of Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford and spent the rest of his days in Britain. But he never quite recovered from the death, in the Great War, of his son Revere (named for Paul Revere, the anti-British terrorist, from whom Lady Osler was descended).

The rest of the family were of equal note in the Canada of their day. One brother, Sir Edmund Osler M.P. (1845-1924), was an enormously successful financier (and philanthropist), the president of the Dominion Bank. Another brother, Britton Bath Osler Q.C. (1839-1901), was the lawyer Sir John A. Macdonald selected to press the case against Louis Riel at Regina in 1885; he was soon acknowledged as Toronto's leading barrister. This was before the day of the full-time Crown prosecutor, when the Crown solicitor, having prepared a case, then turned it over to a barrister to argue it in court. A barrister could either prosecute or defend, according to his brief; the question "Which side is B. B. on?" was the first one people asked about a sensational criminal case in Toronto of the 1880s and 1890s. Hector Charlesworth recounts some lurid examples in his Candid Chronicles. The final brother was Featherstone Osler, Ontario's Chief Justice.

There were many accomplished Oslers, too many to delineate here. Suffice it to point out that the benevolent influence of this remarkable clan carried down to recent times. The poet Anne Wilkinson (1910-1961) was an Osler. One of her prose works, Lions in the Way (1956), deals with Sir Edmund's last days and family history generally. She was an important patron of Canadian writing, sometimes subventing publication of the Tamarack Review. Her son Alan, mentioned above, was the force behind creation of the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre at the AGO, which remains almost as much his monument as the artist's. The very week I write these words, a paid death notice appears in the Globe and Mail for one Campbell Revere Osler, C.D., B.A. Ll.B. D.Cn.L., Q.C., aged seventy-eight, Trinity College, Osgoode Hall, the military. "His sense of honour, loyalty, and dedication was seen in all aspects of his life," the notice ran, "including his legal career where he retired as partner of Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt in 1984, and in his Church life where he served as Chancellor of the Anglican Diocese of the Arctic for many years." Perhaps the most amazing fact about this obituary is that the family saw fit to pay for it to run in the Toronto Star as well as in the Globe. Always reaching out beyond their own class was another admirable trait of this now virtually extinct species of Central Canadian WASP over-achievers.

To return to Osler: Inspirations from a Great Physician, the book "is not an attempt to fill the perceived need for a new biography of Osler," Dr. Bryan writes. Fair enough. One can only look forward all the more, then, to the biography being written by Michael Bliss, who has moved in recent years from being an important Canadian political historian to a business historian to the leading historian of Canadian medicine. Bliss informs me that the work, not yet titled, will be published by the University of Toronto Press in 1999.


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