The physician is the flower (such as it is) of our civilization. – R.L.Stevenson – Osler, Sir William
Sir William Osler (1849 to 1919), one of the most exalted physicians of the 20th Century was born in 1849. He was typifying authorship, medical expertise, humanistic attributes. His humane behavior added a feather in his cap.
William Osler’s book Aequanimitas with Other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses and Practitioners of Medicine published in 1904 gives an insight into his qualities and conduct during his 70 years of earthly existence.
William Osler focused on two related words – ‘imperturbability’ and ‘Aequanimitas’. He defined imperturbability as ‘coolness and presence of mind, calmness amid storm, clearness of judgement, immobility (meaning stability) [and] impassiveness’.
Aequanimitas signifies calmness, patience, kindness, even temper, composure, self-control and impartiality.
In 1872 when his wish to choose a career in Ophthalmology was thwarted, he coolly remarked, ‘I accept the inevitable with a good grace.
The word ‘Oslerian’ was coined. His reaction to adversity was equanimity. He was. at times, bored with ‘the vegetative life of the work-a-day world’. Osier used to say. “Leave no place for criticism or for a harsh judgement about his brother (i.e., colleague).” Osler believed in euthanasia.
‘He was never anything but courteous and kind to the patients’. William Osler took care ‘not to let his judgement become flawed by fraternizing with them, or by overtly exhibiting emotional reactions’.
William Osler’s sportive spirit at a stressful event is reflected in the following happening. Osler, Wyndham and Winston Churchill contested for the position of Lord Rectorship of Edinburgh University.
Wyndham was elected with 826 votes; Churchill got 727; and Osler 614. Osler commented, “An independent has not been elected since Thomas Carlyle in 1865. I am not a Carlyle. I did not expect it.”
William Osler maintained emotional equilibrium on the death of Sir Stephen Mackenzie, a good friend of Osier for 36 years.
William Osler settled in England in 1905 on appointment as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford.
Cushing states, “It was not in Osier’s nature to worry.” In 1910, at the age of 60, Osler wrote to a friend, ‘I am in bed with another attack of renal calculus. This has lasted longer and I have enjoyed the luxury of two hypodermics.’
William Osler’s view to take the positive effect of illness – ‘how often does ill health. concentrate a man’s resources and bring out qualities of work, the fruits of the spirit, which may be missed in the hurly – burly of the work-a-day world.’
One of his major passions was books – and especially older ones. He established Osier Library at Mc Gill University, Montreal.
William Osler, being a sensible human being was family -oriented, too. He wrote on his son’s death, “And even if I laugh at any mortal thing, it is that I may not weep.”
William Osler lost his buoyancy and gaiety after the death of his son, his only child; he got emaciated and lost much weight. Until his own death, Osler suffered with this emotional wound, grieving overtly and at times covertly, an aching void helpless for him to fill.
William Osler managed with his illnesses – angina pectoris, renal calculi and respiratory disease, with equanimity, occasionally with a sprinkling of humour.
Some literary men criticize his Aequanimitas, saying that he ignored to highlight about compassionate behaviour toward the patient; emotionally, benign equanimity is not enough to better doctor-patient relationship.
It is true that even Osler himself deviated from his own principle of Aequanimitas in certain instances.He died in 1919. His peripatetic medical career left a deep imprint in Canada, USA and the UK. He was a native of North America, settled and died in England.