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The career of William Osler
  1. John Launer
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Launer, Professional Development Department, Health Education England, Stewart House, 32 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DN, UK: john.launer{at}

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If you mention the name William Osler to medical students or young doctors, they will almost certainly associate him with “Osler's nodes” – the painful swellings that occur in infective endocarditis, and which he first identified. Much older doctors are likely to know of Osler mainly as the author of the first modern textbook of medicine. His “Principles and Practice of Medicine,” first published in 1892, went through seventeen editions and became the model for all subsequent medical textbooks. However, if you could turn the clock back, and ask anyone trained in medicine before the middle of the twentieth century, you would hear a quite different kind of narrative. It might astound you. Sir William Osler was regarded in his own time as quite simply the greatest physician in the history of the world. This view was held widely: among his patients, medical students and colleagues, and by the presidents, prime ministers, archbishops, royalty and world-famous writers he came to look after, and who became his friends. Harvey Cushing, his disciple and first biographer, wrote of him: “Everyone fortunate enough to have been brought in contact with him shared from the beginning in the universal feeling of devotion.”1 Herbert Asquith, a British cabinet minister, wrote “He appeared to those of us who met him…to be as perfect as it is given human frailty to be.”2 Osler was considered the paradigm for every doctor. Almost certainly, the teachers of your own teachers will have tried consciously to imitate him.

Osler did not come from a privileged background. His father, originally from Cornwall in England, emigrated to Canada as a young man and was a clergyman in rural Ontario. Osler himself first went …

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