Tuesday, June 02, 2009

`Bibliomania Was the Hobbyhorse'

In the morning I worked in a grade-school library, shelving books and deleting others. The latter was unexpectedly satisfying. I waited for a good opportunity to get self-righteously outraged but it never came. Most of the books were moral tales from the Age of Diversity – awful preachy things unworthy of bright children. I passed the bar code of each castoff under the red light and an alarming red “DELETED” appeared on the computer screen, accompanied by a digitalized squawk. Using a heavy black marker I blotted out evidence of the library’s ownership and added it to the heap destined to go, I was told, to “charity.”

On my break in library limbo I almost finished reading William Osler: A Life in Medicine (1999) by the Canadian historian Michael Bliss. The history of medicine has always interested me more than its theory and practice, and Bliss is a master of documentation. He deploys it gracefully, working rich detail into a fluid narrative, and he isn’t afraid to digress. Bliss suspends the flow to touch on such matters as the 20th century’s Victorian inheritance, the evolving nature of doctor-patient relations, Canada’s cultural ties to England, World War I – and Walt Whitman. It turns out Osler (1849-1919) examined the poet several times at his home in Camden, N.J., introduced by Whitman’s acolyte, the Canadian psychologist Dr. Richard Bucke. Osler, who later came to admire Whitman’s poetry, wrote of him:

“[He] was a fine figure of a man who had aged beautifully, or more properly speaking, majestically, with a large frame and well-shaped, well-poised head, covered with a profusion of snow-white hair which mingled in the cheeks with a heavy, long beard and moustache….I left with the pleasant impression of having seen a splendid old man, and a room the grand disorder of which filled me with envy.”

Bliss informs us Osler also treated William and Henry James, and James Murray, the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. He socialized with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, was partly responsible for getting Gertrude Stein kicked out of Johns Hopkins University, and even shows up in Finnegans Wake: “The ogry Osler will oxmaul us all.” Seldom do I encounter a reader whose temperament and tastes in books are so closely aligned with my own. To encounter such bookish kinship is a pleasing shock, particularly when it comes in the form of a Canadian physician who died 90 years ago. Osler was an antiquarian and bibliophile. Among his favorite writers were Montaigne, Shakespeare, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, Sterne, Swift, Coleridge, Keats and Lamb. Bliss writes of his years in medical school:

“…Osler was well on his way to becoming a compulsive writer and reader, infatuated with the written and printed word. Or most words – he always remembered reading the [London] Times one October day in 1872 in a Tottenham Court Road teashop and being struck by a statement of John Ruskin’s to the effect that no mind could resist for a year the dulling influence of the daily newspaper.”

In 1892, Osler published The Principles and Practice of Medicine, the 1,050-page medical textbook he wrote single-handedly. It remained the standard text for more than 40 years and stayed in print until 2001. Even in a textbook his bibliomania was evident:

“He mentioned historical figures ranging Hippocrates, Mephibosheth, and Sir Thomas Browne, through Montaigne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Coleridge, and Swift.”

Osler adored Tristram Shandy, and in a paper devoted to birth injuries he included a footnote that “directed readers to the ravages of Dr Slop’s forceps…” In addition, Bliss reports: “At times he admitted to whistling that he might not weep, like Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy.” The biographer quotes this from one of Osler’s letters: “How I should have liked to get drunk with Charles Lamb.” And this refers to a time late in Osler’s life, after he had settled in Oxford:

“Back in his study at 13 Northam Gardens, Osler would have opened parcel after parcel of books shipped home from the antiquarian shops of France and Italy. Book collecting and the study of medical bibliography was now edging off his agenda the clinical case studies that had long ago overtaken the pathological work. Bibliomania was the hobbyhorse Osler rode for the rest of his days. In a talk about it, he suggested that one of the best features of British life was the tendency of physicians to have hobbies.”

After Osler’s death, his first edition of his favorite book, Browne’s Religio Medici, rested on his coffin. On the night before his burial, his family was pleased that his body remained in the Lady Chapel at Christ Church, near Burton’s tomb and effigy. I found a copy of A Way of Life and Selected Writings of Sir William Osler, which includes the learned, loving essays Osler wrote about Browne and Burton. In the Browne essay, Osler indulges his love of fanciful convergences:

The Anatomy of Melancholy, which appeared in 1621, must have proved a stimulating bonne-bouche [savory morsel or tidbit] for the Oxford men of the day, and I like to think of the eagerness with which so ardent a student as Browne of Pembroke would have pounced on the second and enlarged edition which appeared in 1624. He may, indeed, have been a friend of Burton, or he may have formed one of a group of undergraduates to watch Democritus Junior leaning over the bridge and laughing at the bargees as they swore at each other. It is stated, I know not on what authority, that Browne practiced in Oxford for a time.”

In a pleasing bibliophilic coda, the first biography of Osler was written by one of his students, Dr. Harvey Cushing (1869-1939), the eminent American neurosurgeon. The two-volume work was published in 1925, and Cushing was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography the following year. In 2005, Bliss published his biography of Cushing.

1 comment:

Fran Manushkin said...

Doctor to the James brothers? Oh, to be a fly on that wall (after the exams, not during).