Childhood & Early Life
William Osler was born on July 12, 1849, in Bond Head, Ontario, then under Canada West. His father, Featherstone Lake Osler, initially from Cornwall, England, was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy before becoming an Anglican minister in rural Upper Canada. His mother, Ellen Free Picton, was also from Cornwall.
Although his parents had initially decided to call him Walter, he was baptized William in the remembrance of William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne on July 12, 1690. His mother, a religious lady, called him Benjamin after the Biblical child of Jacob and Rachel.
Born the eighth of his parents’ nine children, William had seven surviving siblings named Featherstone Lake, Britton Bath, Ellen Mary, Edward, Edmund Boyd, Edmund Lake, and Charlotte. Among them, Britton grew up to be a famous lawyer and Edmund Boyd an established businessman. The youngest sibling, Emma Henrietta, died in infancy.
Dark haired and dark eyed, William was never singled out for individual attention. Only his birthday offered a special occasion. As it fell on the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, the day William III defeated the deposed King James II in 1690, the entire community took part in the celebration.
William had a happy and mischievous childhood. He recalled how his mother would tie him up to a tree, leaving a pail of milk for him to drink if he felt thirsty. At five, he almost cut off Charlotte’s finger because she kept on putting it before his hatchet.
He began his education at Bond Head. But as there was no good school in the vicinity and as his father could not afford to send all his children to the boarding school, he asked for a move, subsequently shifting to Dundas in early 1857.
At Dundas, William attended Dundas Grammar School. He was neither studious nor remarkable in anyway. However, the Civil War in America affected him. Sympathizing with the Confederates, he drilled and mobilized a squad of volunteers at the age of thirteen.
In 1864, just before he reached fifteen, William was expelled from school for shouting abuses at one of his masters. Thereafter, he was enrolled in Barrie Grammar School, a boarding school in Central Ontario. Here too, he had his share of misadventures, but did better in academics.
In January 1866, he moved to Trinity College School, at that time located in Weston. The school had an English environment and William enjoyed his life here, winning most events at school games, hunting and fighting. He also started taking his studies more seriously, winning the Chancellor’s Prize for head student.
One day, William led a group of boys to confront an unpopular matron at the school, resulting in his arrest, possibly spending a night or two in jail. The experience set him thinking and in 1867, he decided to follow his father’s footsteps and join the ministry.
In the autumn of 1867, William Osler entered Trinity College Toronto with a scholarship, studying algebra, Euclid, trigonometry, Greek, Latin prose, Roman history and classics. But soon, under the influence of James Bovell and Rev. William Arthur Johnson, his interest drifted first to natural theology and then to medical science.
In 1868, William Osler changed his stream and entered Toronto School of Medicine, a privately owned institution, studying there for two years. In the college, he spent his spare time in the dissecting center, studying anatomy under Bovell’s microscope. Outside, he spent his time collecting specimens from ponds and woods.
In 1870, he moved to McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal, mainly because the institution was attached to a bigger hospital than Toronto School of Medicine. Here, he came under the influence of Dr. Robert Palmer Howard, a great teacher and clinician.
In Montreal, apart from attending regular lectures, he spent a lot of time observing patients at the Montreal General Hospital, thus learning from direct experience. He also took advantage of the school’s large library, spending a lot of time there.
In 1872, he was awarded his degree in Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery. Thereafter in July, financed by his brother Edmund, he traveled to London, where he underwent postgraduate training in general medicine and physiology, also visiting medical centers in Berlin and Vienna.
In 1873, he demonstrated that unidentified bodies in the blood, now known as blood platelets, were actually the third kind of blood corpuscles. This was one of his earliest scientific achievements.
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Career in Canada
In October 1874, William Osler returned to Canada to take up the post of a lecturer at his alma mater, McGill University Faculty of Medicine, teaching physiology, pathology and medicine. In the spring of 1875, he was promoted to the post of professor at the same institute.
Osler remained at McGill until 1884. During that period, he became very popular with students, especially for introducing modern methods of teaching physiology. Concurrently from 1876, he started working as a pathologist in the smallpox ward of the Montreal General Hospital, subsequently performing around one thousand autopsies.
Using the postmortem room as his laboratory, he continued his work on freshwater polyzoa and parasites, studying hog cholera in 1878-80. Editing the first clinical and pathological reports issued by Montreal General Hospital was another feather in his cap.
He also established a number of medical societies and encouraged the development of closer relations between McGill and the Montreal Veterinary College. Moreover, he contributed extensively to different medical journals, writing mainly on clinical medicine, pathology, and veterinary medicine. He also prepared important specimens for preservation in museums.
Despite his busy schedule, he still found time to practice privately, but paid little attention to financial gains. His remarkable achievements and generosity earned him great popularity both in Canada and America, leading to his appointment as professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in 1884.
In October 1884, William Osler moved to Philadelphia to join his new post at the University of Pennsylvania. By then, his name was already familiar in America because he was not only the Montreal correspondence for ‘Medical News’, but also a regular contributor to the prestigious journal, published from Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, he continued his intensive research in pathology, concurrently expanding his clinical activities. Here too, he worked hard to promote cooperation between different departments, becoming popular both as a teacher and a clinical researcher across the country.
In May 1889, William Osler left Philadelphia to become the physician-in-chief of the newly established Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (Maryland). Here, he was joined by William H. Welch, Howard A. Kelly and William S. Halsted, together playing an important role in establishing the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
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Johns Hopkins School of Medicine opened its doors in autumn 1893 with Osler as its professor of medicine. Meanwhile in 1892, he published his well-known textbook, ‘The Principles and Practice of Medicine: Designed for the Use of Practitioners and Students of Medicine’.
Under Osler’s guidance Johns Hopkins Hospital began to grow rapidly. Concurrently, he also worked with his colleagues, revolutionizing the curriculum, introducing ‘bedside clinical instruction’ whereby students were instructed by the patients’ bedside rather than simply from textbooks. He also encouraged his students to take their problems to the laboratory.
Along with Welch, Kelly and Halsted, Osler started public teaching sessions, thus taking their knowledge in medicine directly to the patients. By the turn of the century, he became one of the most sought-after consultants in North America and the most influential doctor in the entire English-speaking world.
William Osler’s multilevel activities soon began to take its toll on his health. Overworked, he now began to look for a quieter life. Therefore, when in 1904 he was offered the Regius Professorship of Medicine at the University of Oxford by King Edward VII, he readily accepted it.
He left for England in early 1905, taking up the chair in autumn. There he taught only once a week and had a small private practice, spending the rest of his time in reading or writing. However, his hope for a quieter life soon evaporated with hundreds of visitors calling on him at his home.
Among his visitors were students, colleagues, nurses, and friends of friends, all of whom were cordially welcomed. Concurrently, he started being invited for giving lectures from all over Europe. Later, he helped to found the ‘Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland’ and the launch the ‘Quarterly Journal of Medicine’
He collected rare books, creating a magnificent library, which he later bequeathed to McGill University. He also fought for public health measures and promoted clinical teaching in England. Highly against antivivisectionism, he fought relentlessly against the idea, concurrently trying to eliminate ill feelings between physicians.
Personal Life & Legacy
On May 7, 1892, William Osler married Grace Revere in a simple ceremony. She was the widow of Samuel Weissell Gross, a friend of Osler and a great-granddaughter of American patriot Paul Revere. She was a remarkable woman, capable of managing his complicated schedules and erratic habits.
The couple had two sons, one of whom died in infancy. Their younger son, Edward Revere Osler, lived to join the First World War, reaching the rank of second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. He was mortally wounded during the 3rd battle of Ypres and died in August 1917.
It is believed William Osler could not get over the death of his son. He became ill during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1919, remaining in poor health for two months before he died in his Oxford home, possibly of complications from undiagnosed bronchiectasis, on December 29, 1919.
Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University, has been named after him. Apart from that, there are a number of schools in Canada and USA, which also bear his name and legacy.
Osler had also lent his name to a number of diseases like ‘Osler’s Sign’ (blood pressure), ‘Osler nodes’ (subacute bacterial endocarditis), ‘Osler-Weber-Rendu disease’ (vascular), ‘Osler-Libman-Sacks syndrome’ (lupus erythematosus), etc.