Would Osler Have Been a Blogger?

Sir William Osler

I am by no means an Osler scholar, but I ran across this paper about him that made him a little more human, and which made me feel better about myself [1]. It made me wonder if Osler would ever have been a blogger. Sir William Osler was a Canadian physician and one of the founding professors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He created the first residency program for specialty training of physicians. He was revered for his knowledge as a medical scholar and his skill as a diagnostician. One of his greatest contributions was getting medical students out of the lecture hall and onto the wards seeing real live patients to listen to and learn from.

I think I first learned about Sir William Osler when I was a first year medical student. Of course, it was all about his Aequanimitas, a link to the first essay of which you can find at the Johns Hopkins site, Aequanimitas – The first essay.

The language is what I would have called in my young and ruder days, high falutin. I remember wanting to be imperturbable. The fact is, I could never even spell it without looking it up in the dictionary. He was the ideal idol, the celestial mentor for me and probably for many of my medical student peers. What always bothered me was my sense that his equanimity was somehow unattainable by the unwashed majority. Certainly I was then and am now one of the most perturbable creatures on the face of this earth. I suppose I could take refuge in the usual excuse, which is that I’m a psychiatrist and therefore entitled to certain—eccentricities, intensities, and occasional outbursts.

And now for the break dancing Koala bears! You see? I have never believed that Osler,  the icon of imperturbability (I still can’t spell it without looking at it), could have had it in him to be a blogger.

But then I discovered while surfing the web (does anyone still say that nowadays?), the following article by Rodin and Key, with which many are no doubt already familiar, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1294989/pdf/jrsocmed00078-0040.pdf [1]. I never knew Osler was a practical joker. In fact he was thrown into jail once in Toronto for fogging a housekeeper with a satanic stink bomb of “molasses, mustard, and pepper”. So he probably was not the paragon of dignity, asceticism, and tolerance history has made him–at least not all the time.

Osler was devastated by the death of his only son, who was killed in the first World War. He never got over it and his grief finally killed him, in the opinion of many. Although he could keep a stiff upper lip, he was hardly imperturbable.

He took a beating in the press for some remarks that would be called ageism now. They were in his valedictory address:

“The first is the comparative uselessness of men above forty years of age…second fixed idea is the uselessness of men above sixty years of age, and the incalculable benefit it would be in commercial, political, and in professional life if, as a matter of course, men stopped work at this age…” The origin of this opinion was a novel written by Anthony Trollope, The Fixed Period, which was published in 1882. In the novel, men are retired at 67 and then put to death by exsanguination…” Osler further observed, “That incalculable benefits might follow such a scheme is apparent to anyone who, like myself, is nearing the limit, and who has made a careful study of the calamities which may befall men during the seventh and eighth decades.”  The newspapers gave the name “oslerize” to this kind of euthanasia. I’ll bet it taxed his equanimity quite a bit.

I can only aspire to the ideals expressed in the Aequanimitas. And that will have to be good enough, because I’m getting closer to the age where the prospect of oslerizing weighs heavier on the mind.

1. Rodin, A. E. and J. D. Key (1994). “William Osler and Aequanimitas: an appraisal of his reactions to adversity.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 87(12): 758-763.

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