All the inhabitants of my private pantheon are writers. Even Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong wrote better-than-serviceable prose. Shoulder to shoulder with the more obvious characters – Dr. Johnson, Chekhov, Zbigniew Herbert – is a figure best known as a pioneering, Canadian-born physician: Dr. William Osler (1849-1919). He was co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital and established the first residency program for medical students. He was also a bookman, a musty term I’d like to see resuscitated. A reader, yes, and sometimes a book collector, but without the taint of pedantry or snobbishness. Someone whose sensibility is suffused with books, language and learning.
About ten years ago I found a third edition (1932) of Osler’s extravagantly titled Aequanimitas, with Other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses and Practitioners of Medicine, first published in 1904. I paid four dollars for it. The title word means “equanimity” or “imperturbability.” One of the lectures included is “Men and Books,” in which he quotes or alludes to Johnson, Bunyan, Milton, Cotton Mather, Horace, James Russell Lowell, Washington Irving and many doctors. At the end of the volume, Osler adds a “Bed-side Library for Medical Students.” He assures us a liberal education “may be had at a very slight cost of time and money,” urges medical students to “get the education, if not of a scholar, at least of a gentleman,” and suggests:
“Before going to sleep read for half an hour, and in the morning have a book open on your dressing table. You will be surprised to find how much can be accomplished in the course of a year.”
His Bed-side Library includes the Old and New Testaments, Shakespeare, Montaigne and Plutarch, among others. Elsewhere, Osler calls Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy “the greatest medical treatise written by a layman.” He spent years searching for the books used by Burton, identifying 580 volumes in the Bodleian and 429 in the Christ Church Library. Osler was not a one-book man. After his death, Osler’s first edition of his favorite book, Sir Thomas 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 recommend William Osler: A Life in Medicine (1999) by the Canadian historian Michael Bliss. As a physician, we learn, Osler treated William and Henry James, Walt Whitman and James Murray, the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and he befriended Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. I also recommend A Way of Life and Selected Writings of Sir William Osler, which includes pieces on 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 American neurosurgeon. The two-volume work was published in 1925 and Cushing was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography the following year. In 2005, Michael Bliss published his biography of Cushing.
Osler was born on this date, July 12, in 1849.