Robert Fulford's column about William Osler

(The Globe and Mail, November 30, 1999)

After Sir William Osler's death in 1919, a British cabinet minister wrote to his widow, "nobody ever lived who had to such a remarkable degree the gift of making other people feel that life was worthwhile."

That breathtaking compliment suggests one reason why circles of intense love and admiration surrounded Osler for most of his career: He could animate the people near him with the power of his own intelligence, energy and high spirits. He was the most influential doctor of his age and probably the greatest Canadian produced in the 19th century, but what seems most striking about him is his effect on others. How often can we say of a happy and successful man that he was the cause of happiness and success in those around him?

Students and colleagues warmed themselves at the hearth of his personality, and his renown as a diagnostician brought him an amazing range of patients. As a fairly young man he treated Walt Whitman and, in later years, he treated both Henry James, the novelist, and his brother, William, the philosopher. In 1913, he examined the pale, thin, young Prince of Wales, who was later briefly Edward VIII. "He does not impress me as a very strong organism," Osler noted.

Osler's sense of humour could get him in bizarre trouble.

Once, urging that young people be given a chance to prove themselves, he lightheartedly suggested that it might be better for the human race if we all retired at age 60 and took a fatal dose of chloroform a year later. Literal-minded newspaper editors made that speech into a scandal, and for a while "oslerize" was a synonym for euthanize. This won him a tiny place in literature: He's the only Canadian that James Joyce mentioned in Finnegans Wake.

That controversy greatly surprised Osler. Even at the height of his career, even after he had made Johns Hopkins in Baltimore the best teaching hospital on the continent, he didn't realize his words would be taken so seriously. He obviously didn't know the extent of his own importance, not a common failing among the famous in medicine or any other field.

One of the most remarkable Canadian books of recent years, William Osler: A Life in Medicine (University of Toronto Press), by Michael Bliss, raises an interesting question: Can goodness be enthralling? In 1999, can a man without significant flaws, and with a multitude of virtues, be the subject of a noble and compelling biography?

Bliss demonstrates that the answer is yes, providing that the man does crucial work in original and ingenious ways, that he and his friends leave behind a richly detailed record and that the biographer places the man's life and work in their historic framework.

Bliss, previously the author of a biography of Frederick Banting and two other works of medical history, carefully shows us how medicine developed just before and during Osler's working life. (In 1872, studying at the University College Hospital in London, he heard a surgeon say in a lecture that the art of surgery had just about reached its limit.) Osler changed medicine not by scientific discoveries but by transforming medical education. He took teaching out of the lecture hall and moved it into the wards, creating the style of medical education that persists to this moment.

A great hero in life, Osler became almost a saint after his death. His reputation then faded, but in recent years it has revived, perhaps because doctors are rediscovering the need for Oslerian qualities.

He's certainly alive in the medical journals. Last winter, a piece in The Lancet in England praised Osler's writing, called his famous textbook, Principles and Practice of Medicine, "a medical literary masterpiece," and deplored the fact that few doctors today can write. Osler has a lively presence on the Internet, where Tan Min-Han, a medical student at the National University of Singapore, maintains a Web site with texts of Osler lectures and links to other Osler sites. Bliss, by giving us the first medically sophisticated and readable biography, can only accelerate the progress of his subject's reputation.

Long before the word "meritocracy" entered the language, Osler acted it out. He was born in 1849 in Bond Head, a village north of the little city of Toronto, the son of a chronically homesick Englishman, Rev. Featherstone Osler, who had reluctantly come to the colony as an Anglican minister and found himself struggling in the wilderness against his great enemies: liquor, blasphemy, vice, High Anglicans and the animal feelings aroused by Methodist camp meetings. Three other sons distinguished themselves (two fine lawyers and a famous banker) but it was William who leapt farthest -- to the primitive medical school in Toronto, then McGill, then Europe, then back to McGill as a teacher and on to the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, and finally Oxford and the regius professorship of medicine, followed by a knighthood. All those years he taught, practised medicine, wrote (1,200 articles as well as his books), made a great private library -- and somehow never failed to find time for family and friends.

Can Bliss explain why Osler was a good man? Of course not. With the help of Freud and others, biographers have developed, God knows, many ways of telling us why the great poet was really a scoundrel and the beloved politician was a monster around the house. But there's still nothing in the modern biographer's kit to explicate goodness. A story like Osler's can only be told, in all its sweetness and beauty.

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