In 1919, Sir William Osler was probably the best-known doctor in the English-speaking world. Canadian born and trained, he had a long and distinguished career, ending as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University. In July of 1919, at the age of 70, he developed a severe cough. He wrote to his sister-in-law in October: "There is nothing I do not know of the varieties & vagaries of coughs and coughing - the outcome is far away. Shunt the whole pharmacopoeia, except opium. It alone in some form does the job. What a comfort it has been!" 
In 1919, Sir William Osler was probably the best-known doctor in the English-speaking world. Canadian born and trained, he had a long and distinguished career, ending as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University.

In July of 1919, at the age of 70, he developed a severe cough. He wrote to his sister-in-law in October: "There is nothing I do not know of the varieties & vagaries of coughs and coughing - the outcome is far away. Shunt the whole pharmacopoeia, except opium. It alone in some form does the job. What a comfort it has been!" 


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Sir William Osler

United States National Library of Medicine

B20151
© United States National Library of Medicine


He died on December 29, 1919, probably from a secondary bacterial infection of the lungs following a viral infection.

The opium helped calm his wracking cough, but had no effect on the bacterial infection - it treated the symptom, not the disease itself. Today, a doctor would probably prescribe antibiotics, unknown in Osler's day, to fight the bacterial infection. But the patient might also be given codeine, derived from the Opium Poppy, to quiet coughing and allow rest.

He died on December 29, 1919, probably from a secondary bacterial infection of the lungs following a viral infection.

The opium helped calm his wracking cough, but had no effect on the bacterial infection - it treated the symptom, not the disease itself. Today, a doctor would probably prescribe antibiotics, unknown in Osler's day, to fight the bacterial infection. But the patient might also be given codeine, derived from the Opium Poppy, to quiet coughing and allow rest.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Papaver somniferum

Missouri Botanical Garden

© Missouri Botanical Garden


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • recall how Sir William Osler was healed by traditional medicine;
  • indicate if an illness like the one that affected Sir William Osler could happen again today.

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