Osler and McGill

Sir William Osler
Sir William Osler (1849-1919)

I gave a presentation on Sir William Osler’s presence at McGill in the 21st century at a symposium organized by McGill’s department of Social Studies of Medicine on February 3, 2021. You can find the recording here.

In this brief presentation, I address three issues around Osler and his legacy at McGill.

First, defining Osler as a “man of his time” is problematic both because it discounts the historical realities of the groups that were subject to harm originating from Osler’s dominant social class, and also because in many respects Osler was not a saint even based on his social group’s morality. Second, reactions to criticism of Osler’s remarks that are today seen as racist, sexist or ageist are particularly strong because the medical field continues to have difficulty dealing with these very issues within the profession today. And finally, the way Osler’s legacy is used at McGill today is mostly a caricature and not representative of Osler’s real contributions and failings.

I end with the hope that McGill and the medical field at large will be able to reexamine Osler’s legacy and reincorporate it into our common narratives in a way that is inclusive and historically accurate.

My presentation links to this page to provide a list of references and image sources; you can find these below.

    1. Agarwal GR. RE: A Saint in Browntown? Published online January 9, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/re-saint-browntown
    2. Ambrose CT. “Fixed Period, The,” by William Osler. In: Sir William Osler: An Encyclopedia. Jeremy Norman Publishing; 2020:261-263. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.jnorman.com/pages/books/45472/charles-s-bryan/sir-william-osler-an-encyclopedia
    3. British Medical Journal. The Tercentenary of Sir Thomas Browne. Br Med J. 1905;2(2339):1121-1125. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.2339.1121
    4. Bruser D, Grill M. The untold story of four Indigenous skulls given away by one of Canada’s most famous doctors, and the quest to bring them home. The Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/news/investigations/2020/12/17/the-untold-story-of-four-indigenous-skulls-given-away-by-one-of-canadas-most-famous-doctors-and-the-quest-to-bring-them-home.html. Published December 17, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2021.
    5. Bruser D, Grill M. ‘When the dead come to you, you pay attention:’ Inside the quest to bring home four Indigenous skulls taken to Europe more than a century ago. The Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/news/investigations/2020/12/18/when-the-dead-come-to-you-you-pay-attention-inside-the-quest-to-bring-home-four-indigenous-skulls-taken-from-canada-more-than-a-century-ago.html. Published December 18, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2021.
    6. Bryan CS, Toodayan N. Osler studies enter second century. J Med Biogr. 2019;27(4):186-188. doi:10.1177/0967772019849282
    7. Bryan CS. Sir William Osler: An Encyclopedia. Jeremy Norman Publishing; 2020. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.jnorman.com/pages/books/45472/charles-s-bryan/sir-william-osler-an-encyclopedia
    8. Bryan CS. Sir William Osler, eugenics, racism, and the Komagata Maru incident. Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. 2020;0(0):1-5. doi:10.1080/08998280.2020.1843380
    9. Chan GK. RE: Defining a person by their skin colour is also racist. Erasing history will doom us to repeat it. Published online January 9, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/re-defining-person-their-skin-colour-also-racist-erasing-history-will-doom-us-repeat-it
    10. Chown Oved M. Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine, made openly racist statements — and it’s time to stop celebrating him, medical journal article says. The Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/news/investigations/2020/11/09/sir-william-osler-the-father-of-modern-medicine-made-openly-racist-statements-and-its-time-to-stop-celebrating-him-medical-journal-article-says.html. Published November 9, 2020. Accessed January 9, 2021.
    11. Clarfield AM, Hogan DB. RE: a bit of perspective please. Published online January 8, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/re-bit-perspective-please
    12. Cornelson BM. Saint Osler. Published online January 8, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/saint-osler
    13. Dalton DH. RE: William Osler. Published online January 9, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/re-william-osler
    14. Fiddes P, Komesaroff PA. An emperor unclothed: the virtuous Osler. Hektoen International. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://hekint.org/2018/03/20/emperor-unclothed-virtuous-osler/
    15. Fogarty C. Sanitation, Sanity, and (Moral) Suitability: The History of the Medical Inadmissibility of Immigrants into Canada (1840s-1950s). Published online November 3, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.mcgill.ca/library/files/library/essay_fogarty_2017.pdf
    16. Fogarty C. Sanitation, Sanity, and (Moral) Suitability: The History of the Medical Inadmissibility of Immigrants into Canada. McGill Journal of Medicine. 2020;18(1). https://mjm.mcgill.ca/article/view/169
    17. Hague-Yearl M. Osler Centenary Papers: Fire at the McIntyre: a tale of response, resilience, and recovery. Postgraduate Medical Journal. 2019;95(1130):652-655. doi:10.1136/postgradmedj-2019-137183
    18. Hogan DB. Osler’s “The Fixed Period.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 1989;37(9):917-917. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-5415.1989.tb02277.x
    19. Hogan DB, Clarfield AM. Osler and the Jewish people. CMAJ. 1997;156(11):1559-1562.
    20. Jirousek T. Here’s why some statues should come down. Montreal Gazette. https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/columnists/tomas-jirousek. Accessed January 9, 2021.
    21. Kline GA. Co-existing heart failure does not diminish the stature of a giant. Published online January 8, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/co-existing-heart-failure-does-not-diminish-stature-giant
    22. Ludemann JP. RE: Osler’s Racism. Published online January 9, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/re-osler%E2%80%99s-racism
    23. McAlister V. Dare we hope. Published online January 9, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/dare-we-hope
    24. McGill University. Inauguration of Promenade Sir William Osler. McGill Newsroom. Published October 28, 1999. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/inauguration-promenade-sir-william-osler-9653
    25. McGill University. Policy Relating to the Naming of University Assets. University Policies and Regulations. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://www.mcgill.ca/secretariat/policies-and-regulations
    26. Morley-Forster P. RE: William Osler: saint in a White man’s dominion. Published online January 9, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/re-william-oslersaint-white-mans-dominion
    27. Pai SA. RE: Sir William Osler and racism. Published online January 16, 2021. Accessed January 17, 2021. http://www.cmaj.ca/content/re-sir-william-osler-and-racism
    28. Persaud N, Butts H, Berger P. William Osler: saint in a “White man’s dominion.” CMAJ. 2020;192(45):E1414-E1416. doi:10.1503/cmaj.201567
    29. Relich S, Pendharkar S, Nolan M. From DeGroote to Michael Garron: why more medical institutions are selling their names. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://healthydebate.ca/2016/06/topic/hospital-medical-school-renaming
    30. Shaheen-Hussain S. Fighting for a Hand to Hold : Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press; 2020. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=2579387
    31. Shaheen-Hussain S. No pedestal for medical pioneer Sir William Osler. Montreal Gazette. https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/opinion-no-pedestal-for-medical-pioneer-sir-william-osler. Accessed January 9, 2021.
    32. Sointu E. ‘Good’ patient/‘bad’ patient: clinical learning and the entrenching of inequality. SHIL. 2017;39(1):63-77. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.12487
    33. Toodayan N. “Distinctions of race, nationality, colour, and creed are unknown within the portals of the temple of Æsculapius.” – William Osler (1849-1919), Montreal, 1 September 1897. Published online January 8, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.cmaj.ca/content/%E2%80%9Cdistinctions-race-nationality-colour-and-creed-are-unknown-within-portals-temple-%C3%A6sculapius
    34. Wallis F. Piety and prejudice: In his respect for the Jewish people, Osler was less a man of his time than a man of his profession. CMAJ. 1997;156(11):1549-1551.
    35. Weinstein M. Proposed Revisions to the Policy Relating to the Naming of University Assets.; 2019. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://www.mcgill.ca/senate/files/senate/05_d19-22_naming_policy_1.pdf
    36. Xiao Z, Lametti A. Motion Regarding the Eponyms of Sir William Osler—​ Motion Relative Aux Éponymes de Sir William Osler.; 2019. Accessed January 9, 2021. http://www.mcgillmed.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Motion-regarding-the-eponyms-of-Sir-William-Osler-2019.pdf
Image references
    1. Bergeron J. Maude Abbott: The Canadian scientist who deserved a Nobel prize : Health e-News. Health e-News: McGill Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences Electronic Newsletter. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://publications.mcgill.ca/medenews/2018/09/13/maude-abbott-the-canadian-scientist-who-deserved-a-nobel-prize/
    2. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Recordings Reveal Business Titan’s Deal with the Montreal Mafia.; 2021. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1842624067964
    3. Captain108. English: Medical Building of McMaster University Medical School.; 2016. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MDCL_Building_at_McMaster_University.jpg
    4. Dekker en:User:Europeangraduateschool cropped by Marcel Douwe. Jean Baudrillard Portret.; 2009. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_Baudrillard_portret.jpg
    5. McGill University. Sir William Osler (1849-1919). About McGill. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.mcgill.ca/about/history/osler
    6. McGill University. The Osler Library rises from the ashes. McGill Giving. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://giving.mcgill.ca/all-stories/osler-library-rises-ashes
    7. Waymarking.com. Waymarking.com – Sir William Osler Commemorative Monument. Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.waymarking.com/gallery/image.aspx?f=1&guid=8256906d-662a-4b62-9858-d73d465f945e