Sir William Osler

Remembering Osler

LESLIE STOJSIC | Growing up in rural Ontario, wild Willy Osler had a penchant for misbehaving. Unscrewing desks and chairs from classroom floors, playing pranks on teachers, even things that landed him in jail for a night or two. Who would have predicted that this juvenile delinquent would become one of the most influential physicians in the history of medicine?

But by the time William Osler joined McGill's Faculty of Medicine in 1874, the former ne'er-do-well had transformed himself into an eminent physician, educator and humanitarian. Osler earned his MD at McGill in 1872 and was a member of the university's faculty until 1884, before moving on to the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, where he became the first professor of medicine, and, finally, Oxford, where he was the Regius Chair of Medicine.

Osler's style, which included bedside teaching, discussing diagnostic errors and spending time with patients, was considered radical. Until Osler, medical education consisted of textbook-reading, lectures and studying illustrations; there was no contact with patients.

The tenet of Osler's teaching methodology was that the best teachers are those who are perpetual students themselves, and he frequently put himself in the place of students during his classes. This philosophy would leave an indelible mark on the medical world, as it did on McGill. Furthermore, Osler, upon his death in 1919, bequeathed his priceless library of over 8,000 books and manuscripts to the University, establishing the Osler Library of the History of Medicine.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Osler's birth, and to celebrate his contributions to McGill and to medical education, McGill is playing host to several events and exhibitions around campus in the coming months. The city of Montreal, for its part, is marking the milestone by renaming of the top of Drummond Street, near the McIntyre Medical Building, to Promenade Sir William Osler.

The centrepiece of the sesquicentennial is Osler's McGill: Medical Education, 1870-1885. Using teaching aids, books and journals, photos and maps and pathological specimens of the era, the exhibit recreates the life of the McGill medical student in Osler's day.

"We wanted to concentrate on Osler's work at McGill," says Pam Miller, archivist at the Osler Library. With the assistance of two interns, Miller directed the research and selected the material for the exhibit, which will be featured at the Redpath Museum through September.

"Much is known of his later years, but a great deal of his success is based on his early years as a student and teacher here," says Miller. Ironically, Osler's decision to attend McGill had more to do with the proximity to teaching facilities and hospitals than with the reputation of its medical faculty.

Among the treasures of the exhibit are actual pathological specimens prepared by Osler, including a surprisingly well-preserved human heart. Also displayed are one of the 12 Hartnack microscopes which Osler purchased from Paris for his students shortly after beginning his teaching career at McGill, as well as "bedsheet drawings" of plants, by William Dawson, used as teaching aids in botany classes. As Miller notes, many of the exhibits were collected from archives on campus.

"The resources at McGill are very rich. And it's more than just the latest piece of equipment," she stated. "It's the collections -- the soul of McGill -- that also need to be preserved." In this way, Miller says, we perpetuate the ideas Osler stood for: "supporting the libraries and using our resources."

Another exhibition celebrating Osler's impact at McGill is Hospital Architecture: Treasures from McGill's Collections. Displayed against a backdrop of surgical greens are primary source documents, including original architectural plans, advertisements and advice books relating to state-of-the-art Montreal hospitals at the turn of the century. Highlights of the exhibit include original drawings by British architect Henry Saxon Snell, designer of the original Royal Victoria Hospital pavilion, built in 1893, never before shown to the public.

Although most of the exhibition is related to the evolution of McGill's teaching hospitals, particularly the Royal Victoria, they reflect international concerns of the time. For example, the pavilion model of hospitals and anticipating expansion of health facilities reflect how truly modern McGill teaching hospitals were. "Flexibility is one thing these architects had in mind," notes David Theodore, a graduate student in architecture and one of the curators of the exhibit.

Also marking the sesquicentennial is the annual conference of the American Osler Association, taking place this week in Montreal. Delegates from the English and the Japanese Osler Societies will be joining the Americans. All in all, about 200 Oslerians are expected to show -- including those from McGill's Student Osler Society, which, at 78 years of age, is not just the oldest Osler society, but also the University's oldest student society.

"Quite a few Osler societies have come and gone over the years, but McGill's is the only one that's endured," says Dr. William Feindel. He should know -- the neurosurgeon and former head of the Montreal Neurological Institute was president of the Student Osler Society in 1945.

Back then, the society held regular meetings where students presented papers relating to medical history. Feindel's paper? Osler's contributions to neurology, including groundbreaking work in neuropathology and writings on diseases of the nervous system.

"Of course, there are many other fields -- cardiology, vascular and respiratory medicine -- that would claim Osler as their figurehead as well," Feindel points out. "But the mission of all Osler societies is to recognize Osler's contribution of humanizing medicine."

The raison d'être of McGill's Student Osler Society derived as much from the need for resources as out of reverence for Sir William. "The society was started in 1921, with the initial idea being to pool resources to purchase books for the library," said Steven Prescott, president of the Student Osler Society. "Now, we have discussion groups about the history and philosophy of medicine that develop a more rounded attitude about medicine."

Feindel notes that Osler's lessons from a century ago -- practicing humane medicine, listening to patients, being a student for life -- are just as relevant today, with the growing mechanization and automation of the health sciences: "Above all, Osler stressed the importance of the individual patient," he says.

"Osler wanted medicine to go beyond the rigid science that is taught," says Prescott. "He would describe medicine's ideal as 'the culture, the science and the art commensurate with the dignity of a learned profession.' That's as true today as it was 100 years ago."