Portrait of William Osler

William Osler was a pathologist, clinical professor, essayist and historian. He is often called the "doctor's doctor," due to his influence on medical education. Many features of medical education today, including laboratory instruction, bedside teaching, and the system of interns and residents at hospitals, were innovations championed by Osler at the turn of the century.

Irma Coucill
From the permanent Collection of The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

© CHIN 2001


Osler’s interest in science can be traced back to his childhood, at Bond Head, near Lake Simcoe, Ontario. As a child, in the 1850s and 60s, Osler’s hobbies included collecting frogs, fish, insects and other specimens from nearby forests and ponds to examine under the microscope, a popular Victorian pastime.
He was fortunate enough to have access to a microscope and a collection of slide specimens, a novelty then, and soon became skilled at dissecting, examining, mounting, and cataloguing what he found as well. He expanded his collection through the years. By the time he was nineteen, and settled on studying medicine, Osler was spending countless long hours dissecting human cadavers, and would continue this important research for many years to follow.
Following his undergraduate work (at the University of Toronto), Osler completed his clinical studies in Montreal, graduating at McGill University in 1872.
After graduating, Osler travelled through Europe, gaining valuable laboratory experience along the way. He returned to Canada in 1874 and took a position as lecturer in McGill University at age twenty-five. During the next ten years at Montreal he did Read More
Osler’s interest in science can be traced back to his childhood, at Bond Head, near Lake Simcoe, Ontario. As a child, in the 1850s and 60s, Osler’s hobbies included collecting frogs, fish, insects and other specimens from nearby forests and ponds to examine under the microscope, a popular Victorian pastime.
He was fortunate enough to have access to a microscope and a collection of slide specimens, a novelty then, and soon became skilled at dissecting, examining, mounting, and cataloguing what he found as well. He expanded his collection through the years. By the time he was nineteen, and settled on studying medicine, Osler was spending countless long hours dissecting human cadavers, and would continue this important research for many years to follow.
Following his undergraduate work (at the University of Toronto), Osler completed his clinical studies in Montreal, graduating at McGill University in 1872.
After graduating, Osler travelled through Europe, gaining valuable laboratory experience along the way. He returned to Canada in 1874 and took a position as lecturer in McGill University at age twenty-five. During the next ten years at Montreal he did original work in pathology (the branch of medicine concerned with the cause, origin, and nature of disease), biology, and clinical work. Osler’s interest in direct discovery prompted him as a young instructor at McGill University to spend his own money to buy microscopes for all his students. Osler’s acquisition of fifteen microscopes from France led to the first physiological laboratory in Canada.

© CHIN 2001

Microscope slide

An insect mounted on a microscope slide

Manufacturer uncertain
University Health Network Artifact Collection
19 Century
1921.3.1
© CHIN 2001


Microscope slide

Human specimen mounted on microscope slide

Manufacturer uncertain
University Health Network Artifact Collection
19 Century
1921.3.1
© CHIN 2001


Microscope slide cabinet

This is the microscope cabinet that was used by Osler.

Manufacturer uncertain
University Health Network Artifact Collection
19 Century
1921.3.1
© CHIN 2001


Potter no. 2 microscope

This is a microscope used by Osler as a student. It was made by A.J. Potter, an instrument maker in Toronto.

Made by A.J. Potter, Toronto
University Health Network Artifact Collection
c. 1861
1921.3.3
© CHIN 2001


Osler’s professional ideas and discoveries became so well known that in 1884 he was invited to accept the Chair of Clinical Medicine in the University of Pennsylvania. With reluctance, he left his Canadian homeland for Philadelphia. There he continued his then unconventional approach to teaching at the bedside rather than in the lecture-room. He taught that the job of the physician was to "generalize the disease and individualize the patient."

In 1889, Osler became Physician-in-Chief at the new Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, where for the next sixteen years he would shape a new medical school. During the first few years of this prestigious post, Osler was able to carve out enough time from his strict schedule to produce his greatest and most significant written work, The Principles and Practices of Medicine (D. Appleton and Company, 1892).

The book drew from the knowledge he had acquired at the bedside of his patients, in the labs, in the post-mortem room, from medical literature, and through his professional friendships. This book was adopted internationally, and still serves as an example of excellent medical writing.

Osler w Read More
Osler’s professional ideas and discoveries became so well known that in 1884 he was invited to accept the Chair of Clinical Medicine in the University of Pennsylvania. With reluctance, he left his Canadian homeland for Philadelphia. There he continued his then unconventional approach to teaching at the bedside rather than in the lecture-room. He taught that the job of the physician was to "generalize the disease and individualize the patient."

In 1889, Osler became Physician-in-Chief at the new Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, where for the next sixteen years he would shape a new medical school. During the first few years of this prestigious post, Osler was able to carve out enough time from his strict schedule to produce his greatest and most significant written work, The Principles and Practices of Medicine (D. Appleton and Company, 1892).

The book drew from the knowledge he had acquired at the bedside of his patients, in the labs, in the post-mortem room, from medical literature, and through his professional friendships. This book was adopted internationally, and still serves as an example of excellent medical writing.

Osler was an astute and prolific writer, and was well versed in all the humanities. In fact, he was such a lover of books that he compelled his students to start their own personal libraries. Osler’s own library, consisting of scientific and medical journals, is housed at the McGill Medical Library, and is known as the Bibliotheca Osleriana. This collection is also known to include the cremated remains of the doctor himself.

At Johns Hopkins, Osler was responsible for shaping and designing the hospital on a German model, in which physicians were responsible for particular sections and reported to a chief physician. It included a system of long-term and short-term interns. Well-equipped laboratories were dedicated to research, forming an integral part of both the medical school and the hospital itself. And, for the first time, a school of nursing was introduced as a component of the modern hospital.

Osler believed his professional success was a result of a strict self-imposed regimen. He believed in keeping a list of his long-range, intermediate and short-term goals. Among Osler’s best advice has been "to plan the day, then live in the present."

© CHIN 2001

The Principles and Practices of Medicine

During the first few years of this prestigious post, Osler was able to carve out enough time from his strict schedule to produce his greatest and most significant written work, The Principles and Practices of Medicine (D. Appleton and Company, 1892).

William Osler (D. Appleton and Company, 1892)
From the private collection of A.H. Little
c. 1892
© CHIN 2001


Video clip illustrating some of Osler´s ideas

This is a video clip illustrating some of Osler´s ideas about teaching and learning medicine.

"In today’s terms, Osler would have been described as a ’people person,’ just having him walk into the ward would start a small commotion because he sincerely believed that the best place to learn medicine was at the bedside of the afflicted and not in a textbook"

The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

© CHIN 2001


Osler spent the last five years of his professional career at the prestigious Oxford School as Chair of Regius Professor of Medicine, retiring at age 60. During the First World War, he used his time, influence and popularity to ensure that soldiers were properly protected against disease and that unfit men were not enlisted. As he had done throughout his career, he tried his best to turn a sickroom into a bright, cheerful room of rest, even under the worst of circumstances. He would continue this work to his death in 1919.
William Osler is among the first doctors to be inducted into The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
Osler spent the last five years of his professional career at the prestigious Oxford School as Chair of Regius Professor of Medicine, retiring at age 60. During the First World War, he used his time, influence and popularity to ensure that soldiers were properly protected against disease and that unfit men were not enlisted. As he had done throughout his career, he tried his best to turn a sickroom into a bright, cheerful room of rest, even under the worst of circumstances. He would continue this work to his death in 1919.
William Osler is among the first doctors to be inducted into The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

© CHIN 2001

Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Identify and appreciate the way history and culture shape a society’s science and technology
  • Describe scientific and technological developments, past and present, and appreciate their impact on individuals and societies
  • Describe how Canadians have contributed to science and technology on the global stage

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