Telegram of Sir William Osler, 1917

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Telegram from Sir William Osler in London to his friend, the biologist, Robert Ramsay Wright in Canada, notifying him of the death of Osler's son, Edward Revere Osler, of wounds sustained at the Ypres Salient in Belgium, August 1917.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Osler played a key role in transforming the organization and curriculum of medical education, emphasizing the importance of clinical experience. William Osler was born in the backwoods of Canada, the youngest of the nine children of the Reverend Featherstone Osler, who had gone to Canada as an Anglican missionary, and his wife, Ellen. All of the children achieved success. As a schoolboy he was a small, wiry boy with a vivid manner who excelled both in sports and studies.

William, like his father, was intended for the church. But while at school he read Sir Thomas Browne's (1606-1682) Religio Medici (1643) and became fascinated by natural history. He began to study arts at Trinity College, Toronto, but decided that the church was not for him and entered the Toronto Medical School in 1868. He subsequently transferred to McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he took his medical degree in 1872. During the following two years he visited medical centres in London, Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna, spending the longest period at University College, London, in the physiology laboratory of John Burdon-Sanderson (1828-1906), who was making experimental physiology pre-eminent in medical education.

Osler returned to Canada and began general practice in Dundas, Ontario, but was soon appointed lecturer in the institutes of medicine at McGill University, Montreal. He became professor there in 1875. A year later he became pathologist to the Montreal General Hospital and in 1878 physician to that hospital. At McGill he taught physiology, pathology, and medicine. His research was conducted largely in the postmortem room. In 1884, while in Leipzig, he was invited to occupy the chair of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He decided to do so on the toss of a coin. While in Philadelphia he became a founding member of the Association of American Physicians.

In 1888 Osler accepted an invitation to be the first professor of medicine in the new Johns Hopkins University Medical School in Baltimore. It was here that he established himself as the most outstanding medical educator of his time, and commenced the modern era as we know it today. There he joined William Henry Welch (1850-1934), chief of pathology, Howard Atwood Kelly (1858-1943), chief of gynaecology and obstetrics, and William Steward Halsted (1852-1922), chief of surgery. Together, the four transformed the organization and curriculum of clinical teaching and made Johns Hopkins the most famous medical school in the world.

For the first four years there were no students at Johns Hopkins, and Osler used the time to write The Principles and Practice of Medicine, first published in 1892. In the same year, he married Grace Gross, widow of a surgical colleague at Philadelphia and great-granddaughter of Paul Revere, a folk hero of the American Revolution whose dramatic horseback ride on the night of April 18, 1775, warning Boston-area residents that the British were coming, was immortalized in a ballad by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Osler's textbook spread his fame throughout the English-speaking world. It was lucid, comprehensive, interesting, and scholarly. It quickly became the most popular medical textbook of its day and has continued to be published since under a succession of editors, though never regaining the quality with which Osler endowed it. The textbook had an unexpected sequel. In the summer of 1897 it was read in its entirety by the philanthropist and businessman Frederick T. Gates (1853-1929), who had been engaged by John D. Rockefeller to advise him in his philanthropic endeavours. As a result of his reading, Gates inspired Rockefeller to direct his foundation toward medical research and to establish the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York.

In 1904, while visiting in England, Osler was invited to succeed Sir John Burdon-Sanderson (1828-1906) in the Regius Chair of Medicine at the University of Oxford. Osler's practice and teaching had for many years imposed enormous demands on his time and energy. His forceful wife telegraphed him from America: "Do not procrastinate. Accept at once." Osler did. The Regius Chair at Oxford is a crown appointment for which only citizens of the crown are eligible, but Osler had kept his Canadian nationality. He took up his chair in the autumn of 1905, becoming a student, roughly a lifetime fellow, of Christ Church, one of the Oxford colleges, a member of its Hebdomadal (weekly) Council, and curator of the Bodleian Library. In Oxford he taught only once a week, did a small amount of practice, and spent most of his time on his books. His library became one of the best of its kind, and after his death it passed intact to McGill, where it is specially housed. His scholarship was recognized by his election as president of the Classical Association. He was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1884 and a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1898

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Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Penny Hutchins, Archivist in January 2014

Conditions Governing Use

Out of copyright.

Reproductions are available at the discretion of the College Archivist.

Geographical Names