Becoming an Oslerphile

Reviewed and revised 29 August 2014

Learning about the life of Sir William Osler (1849-1919) is perhaps the ultimate lesson in how to live life and practice medicine. Yet, he doesn’t go to war, he doesn’t fight or kill anyone, he doesn’t change the Fates of Nations… How can reading about such a man be interesting?

Well, what Osler did do was that he did things ‘right’ — he constantly found ways to enjoy his life and work, he helped and inspired others, and despite an insane work schedule always made people feel like he had time for them. No one who learns of Osler can fail to be swept away by his incredible personal charisma and his infectious enthusiasm for both work and learning, and — I suspect — no one in medicine can afford not to be!
saint-osler Probably the most accessible and up-to-date biography of Osler is by Canadian writer Michael Bliss: ‘William Osler: A Life in Medicine‘ (2002). Incidentally, Bliss also wrote an excellent book on ‘The Discovery of Insulin‘, which I also highly recommend.

The obsessive and compulsive oslerphile will want to wade through Harvery Cushing’s classic Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “The Life of Sir William Osler“. This magnum opus was published in 1925 and  clocks in at well over a thousand pages and is littered with excerpts from the many letters of the great man himself. It took nearly all of my sleep-deprived intern year to read it, back in the day.

Aside from the traditional biographies, there are at least two other books on Osler that I recommend to all. The first is Silverman et al’s organized collection of over a thousand of Osler’s quotations, namely ‘The Quotatable Osler‘. Osler had a peerless mastery of the written word and his axioms and insights continue to resonant across the centuries. Secondly, there is Charles S. Bryan’s wonderful 1997 book, ‘Osler: Inspirations from a Great Physician‘. This unusual book is almost a self-help book based on the way that Osler lived life. It is a pleasure to read and provides highly nutritious food for thought.

These days, though, no one actually reads books.

So where should the webified Oslerphile turn for an fix of Osleriana? Fortunately, Osler is alive and well on the web. These resources demand your perusal:

  • Osler’s Web — the website of the John P. Historical Collections & Research Center is the place to turn. If something is written by or about Osler and it is on the web, look here first. [Edit 29 August 2014: Sadly this website seems to no longer exist]
  • Osleriania — a great collection of links from the McGill library.
  • The Oslerian Archive at The American Osler Society — regular updates from the Oslerian world.
  • Among Osler’s writings on the web are his biographical essays on the great physicians of the past in ‘An Alabama Student’ and his addresses to students, nurses and practitioners of medicine in ‘Aequanimitas‘.
  • Whonamedit — The article on Osler is a great summary of the man’s life, and there are links to all of Osler’s eponyms.

Of course, there is much about Osler to be found on too:

Once you’ve learned the Art of Observation, seeing what this image really shows will come as no surprise…

Spider Web Dew Drops

Photograph by luc.viatour

egerton y davis iv

…  And, finally, I must not fail to mention the great-grandson of William Osler’s alter ego, UCEM’s very own Council Hygienist and PR Supervisor, the renowned psychiatric surgeon Egerton Y. Davis IV!

You can also follow him on Twitter.

Print Friendly


  1. says

    Thank you. TREMENDOUS round up of the treasures we Oslerphiliacs jealously guard and zealously disseminate! Unfortunately, I have been trying to track down some of these books in my city and they don’t seem to be available in shops. Looks like I gotta flipkart now! :)