11 Facts About Sir William Osler

Sir William Osler, known by many as the “Father of modern medicine” pioneered aspects of medicine that still greatly affect today’s physician. Here we list 11 important facts about Dr. Osler that every physician should know.

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1. Osler was one of four professors whose names are associated with the founding of the Johns Hopkins. The other three were:
i. Halsted (of radical mastectomy fame, and also famous for his cocaine addiction)
ii. Kelly (of Kelly’s forceps)
iii. The pathologist Welch (Clostridium welchii).

2. Osler wrote the first significant and scientific textbook of medicine. The Principles and Practices of Medicine, was published in 1892, was exceptionally popular and, to this day, you cannot read better clinical descriptions of endocarditis or typhoid fever.

3. Osler was famous for being an optimist and a prankster. Under the pseudonym of Egerton Yorrick Davis, he wrote several letters to the editors of medical journals describing various (completely fictional) clinical entities, including penis captivus.

4. Osler was a remarkably efficient man, someone you could set your clock by. He made excellent use of his time.

5. Some of Osler’s speeches were expanded and printed as little booklets. Most famous among them is Aequanimitas (“equanimity”) or the virtuous attitude of calmly accepting what comes one’s way. His A Way of Life is another such masterpiece.

6. Several signs are named after him:
i. Osler’s sign is an artificially high blood pressure reading due to atherosclerotic arteries.
ii. Osler’s nodes: painful bumps in infectious endocarditis.
iii. Rendu-Osler-Weber disease, also known as hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia.
iv. Osler-Vaquez disease is what we now call Polycythemia rubra vera

7. The neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing (1869-1939) wrote the definitive biography of Osler, The Life of Sir William Osler in two volumes that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. Cushing’s name lives on with Cushing’s Syndrome I (excess of cortisol; there are also Cushing’s syndromes II and III which are rare neurological syndromes); Cushing’s triad (signs of raised intracranial pressure are hypertension, bradycardia, irregular respiration); Cushing’s ulcer (gastric ulcer in head injury patients) and Cushing’s Law (increased ICP causes cerebral ischemia), to name a few.

8. Osler spent his last years as the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford.

9. His only son, Revere, died in World War I. Osler wrote in his diary when he heard the news:
“The War Office telephoned at 9 in the evening that he was dead. A sweeter laddie never lived, with a gentle and loving nature. We are heartbroken, but thankful to have the precious memory of his loving life . . . fates do not allow the good fortune that has followed me to go with him to the grave – call no man happy until he dies.•”

10. He died of H. influenzae empyema complicating a long bronchitis and pneumonia.

11. He had almost single-handedly taken the teaching of medicine out of the classroom and to the bedside. He wanted his epitaph to read, “He taught medical students at the bedside.”