A brief history of the life of Sir William Osler. He felt this about biographies : “What more delightful in literature than biography? And yet, how uncertain and treacherous is the account which any man can give of another’s life.”

Sir William Osler (Created with Open AI DALLE2)

Early life

Sir William Osler was a Canadian physician and one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital. He has been described as the “Father of Modern Medicine” for his contributions to the field. Osler was born in Bond Head, Canada West (now Ontario), on July 12, 1849, to Revered Featherstone Lake Osler and Ellen Free Pickton Osler. His father was originally from Cornwall in southwestern England.

Osler entered Trinity College School in Weston, Ontario, in 1866. Subsequently, in 1867, he enrolled at the University of Trinity College in Toronto with the intention of ultimately entering the ministry.

“Sir you are persistently and essentially bad – you are a disgrace to yourself, to your family, to your college, to your church – and – and – you may go now sir.” – Provost of University of Trinity College ( a tantrum directed at Osler for apparently bringing the cadaver of fetus he acquired from the dissection room of the Toronto School of Medicine to Trinity College)

Medical Education

He had his first introduction to the science of medicine through his contact with James Bovell, a lecturer at both the Trinity College and the Toronto School of Medicine. He consistently sat through lectures at the Toronto School of Medicine at the invitation of Bovell. William Osler discovered his love for the art of medicine and subsequently left the University of Trinity College and enrolled in the Toronto School of Medicine in 1868.

His enrollment at the Toronto school of medicine was also short-lived due to the dwindling fortunes of the school. Faculty at the school was poorly remunerated, an unfortunate state of affairs that culminated in his mentor, James Bovell, eventually leaving the college to settle in the British West Indies. Osler transferred to McGill College in Montreal to complete his medical education in 1870 and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery (MD,CM) in 1872.

A lifetime of teaching

After his post-graduate training under the tutorship of the renowned pathologist Virchow in Germany, he accepted a position at McGill University Faculty of Medicine in 1874. The first documented journal club was founded by William Osler. He soon became one of the most popular teachers at McGill.

After an extended period of employment at McGill, Osler accepted the appointment of Chair of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) in 1885. He delivered his farewell address, “Aequanimitas”  to medical students at the University of Pennsylvania in 1889.

In 1889, Osler was appointed professor of medicine at the newly established Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He was one of four founding professors at Johns Hopkins, along with Harvey Cushing, William Welch, and John Whitehead. Osler was instrumental in establishing the Department of Medicine and the Medical School at Johns Hopkins. He also helped to establish Johns Hopkins as a leading center for medical research.

In 1905, Osler was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford in England. He held this position until his death in 1919. Osler was widely respected for his contributions to medicine and education.

Osler died in Oxford on December 29, 1919, at the age of 70. His ashes were interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey. A memorial service was held for him at Johns Hopkins Hospital on January 6, 1920. More than 2,000 people, including many of the world’s leading physicians and surgeons, attended the service. Osler’s legacy continues to this day. He is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of medicine.

His greatest works?

Osler’s greatest contribution to medicine was his emphasis on clinical observation and patient care. He believed that the best way to learn medicine was to study patients and their diseases. This approach to medical education and practice came to be known as “bedside teaching.” Osler also wrote a number of important texts on medicine, including The Principles and Practice of Medicine (1892) and A Textbook of Medicine (1906). These texts were used by generations of medical students and helped to establish Johns Hopkins as a leading center for medical education. Osler’s other notable works include The Evolution of Modern Medicine (1908) and An Address to Medical Students (1913).

Notable quotes by Osler?

  • “A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.”
  • “The physician’s highest calling, his only real profession, is to make sick people healthy – to heal, as it is termed.”
  • ” medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.”
  • There is no more delicate matter to handle, no more dangerous to communicate than the life and death of another.”
  • “He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.”
  • “One of the first duties of the physician is to educate the masses not to take medicine.”
  • “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”
  • “I would rather see a patient die than that he should receive an improper treatment on my responsibility.”
  • “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”

Eponyms and other clinical signs

William Osler described many clinical signs and conditions

Osler’s nodes are small, localized areas of inflammation that can occur in the hands or feet in people with endocarditis, a condition in which the lining of the heart becomes inflamed. The nodes typically appear as red, painful bumps on the skin and are often one of the first symptoms of endocarditis.

Osler–Weber–Rendu disease, also known as hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, is a condition that causes abnormal blood vessels to form in the skin and mucous membranes. The most common symptoms are nosebleeds, but the disease can also cause bleeding from the gums, gastrointestinal bleeding, and heavy menstrual bleeding.

Read other eponyms in general medcine.


Bliss, Michael (1999). William Osler: a life in medicine. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. p. 44 ISBN 978-0-19-512346-3OCLC 41439631.

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