A nuanced dive into the words and potential views of a prominent 19th-century alumnus inspires a review of naming practices at the McGill Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

By Philip Fine with files from the FMHS (Source FMHS eFocus)

The contributions of Sir William Osler, MDCM 1872, are legendary. Canadian-born and McGill- trained, he was one of the most influential physicians in the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He helped champion a scientific reform of medical education, lay the groundwork for bedside teaching, and was a pioneering advocate of patient-centred care before the term existed. His Principles and Practice of Medicine was the landmark medical textbook of his day, and he was one of the four founding professors of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Over 200 obituaries paid tribute to him when he died in 1919.

A century later, a motion from the McGill Medical Students’ Society (MSS) expressed concern that Osler, one of the Faculty’s best known and most celebrated alumni, harboured racist and sexist beliefs. It encouraged “self-reflection about the way Sir William Osler is glorified and how his name is uncritically used.”

The motion spawned a symposium, “Perspectives on Sir William Osler in the 21st Century,” to examine the questions about Osler under an academic light. Although initially delayed due to the onset of the pandemic, it was held February 3, 2021, attracting a broad audience from the McGill community and beyond.

At McGill, Osler’s name is ubiquitous: it’s inscribed on a Parks Canada plaque outside the McIntyre Medical Building, itself located on Promenade Sir-William-Osler. McIntyre, in turn, is the permanent home of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, which was created as the result of a legacy gift by Osler and which consists of works that lay the intellectual foundations of medicine. The Library is also where, at his request, his ashes rest. There is an annual Osler Day at McGill; an essay award and mentoring groups are named for him; and, thanks to another bequest by a contemporary, William Grant Stewart, MDCM 1888, a copy of his 1913 Yale lecture entitled A Way of Life has been distributed to medical students every year since the late 1920s. And it goes on.

Osler Head Librarian Dr. Mary Hague-Yearl noted at the symposium that, while at McGill, Osler founded both the graduate student society and the MSS, and helped develop what is now the Maude Abbott Medical Museum, which features specimens he collected in his time as a pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital. He used the $600 he earned working in the smallpox ward (where he caught the disease) to buy microscopes for his students.

There are other accounts of his life that are more contentious.

An incident raised repeatedly during the symposium was the drafting of Professional Notes, a fictitious report Osler penned under a pseudonym as a practical joke on his rival Dr. W.A. Molson. In it, as explained by Dr. Jenna Healey, Hannah Professor of the History of Medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston (Ontario), he uses such words as “ludicrous,” “disgusting” and “vile animal habit” to describe the sexual and obstetric practices of Indigenous peoples. Also at issue, the skulls of four Indigenous people that Osler took abroad, where they were added to a former teacher’s collection. He served as vice-president at a eugenics conference, stating his hatred for Latin Americans, and reportedly told a female medical student on her first day at Johns Hopkins to “go home.” (Hague-Yearl told FMHS Focus after the symposium that the student used this story “to recount how indebted she was to him for his unwavering support of her during her time at the university.”)

In 1914, speaking about the Kamagata Maru, a ship of Indian would-be immigrants who were denied entry into Canada, Osler asked rhetorically, “What are we to do when the yellow and brown men begin to swarm over?” and added later: “We are bound to make our country a white man’s country.”

Some argue that Osler was a man of his age, and that those statements, especially in light of the good he did, cannot be fairly judged through our modern lens. Others disagree, notably symposium panelist Samir Shaheen-Hussain, MDCM’03, PGME’09, author of Fighting for A Hand to Hold: Confronting Medical Colonialism against Indigenous Children in Canada. “Were colonizers or slave owners in North America simply men of their age? What about the colonized and enslaved who fought to end their oppression?” he asked.

McGill Anatomical Pathology resident André Lametti, MDCM’20, who had been part of the MSS when the Osler motion was passed, also suggested shifting perspectives, asking what today’s “Indigenous communities, whose ancestors’ skulls were taken as collectors’ items, would have to say?”

Shaheen-Hussain, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Division of Emergency Medicine at McGill and a pediatric emergency physician, said that Osler could have challenged his prejudices with actions, such as speaking out against the segregated wards at Johns Hopkins.

Panelist Dr. Nadeem Toodayan, a physician-trainee from Brisbane, Australia, and foundation member of the William Osler Society of Australia & New Zealand, cited letters of praise for Osler from physicians of various backgrounds, including Malayan-born Chinese physician, Dr. Wu Lien-The, who popularized face masks during the 1911 Manchurian plague, and Dr. John Andrew Kenny Sr., a prominent African-American surgeon, who helped found the National Medical Association. Following a stay in Egypt, Osler wrote glowingly of the Islamic religion. Hague-Yearl shared that Osler called nationalism “the greatest curse of humanity.”

Toodayan maintained that Osler may have regretted his infamous remarks about making Canada a white man’s country. He quoted Osler’s correspondence from the following day to a friend: “We colonials occupy rather an anomalous position here in the political world.” He added that Osler would later admit to a propensity for speaking out of turn, describing himself as the possessor of a “wild and wagging tongue that has often gotten me into trouble.”

The panelists made a range of suggestions. There was a call for more nuance by some as well as to treat this as a cautionary tale—that we should be wary of deifying ordinary humans in the university context. Others echoed a suggestion made in the original MSS motion that we broaden our focus to honour a more diverse set of historical figures.

Following the symposium, David Eidelman, MDCM’79, Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, struck a task force to re-examine the Faculty’s approach to naming and commemorating achievements and milestones, which will have as its mandate to identify opportunities for improvement in these practices, including the commemoration of groups and individuals who have been overlooked in the past.


To watch the symposium: “Perspectives on Sir William Osler in the 21st Century”


April 21st, 2021