A Would-be Pastor Turned Doctor Sir William Osler

Sir William Osler – Father of modern medicine

By  Dr. Chuah Seong York

Many of us know of doctors who became pastors.  In TRAC (Trinity Malaysia Methodist Annual Conference) we have pastor Dr Ng Swee Ming of Sungai Way-Subang Methodist Church, who was a general practitioner. 

Locally we also have pastor Dr Chuah Seong Peng of Holy Light Presbyterian Church, Johor Bahru, who was a pediatrician. 

In Singapore Bishop Emeritus Robert M. Solomon, former Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore was a general practitioner.

However, a pastor who became a doctor is almost unheard of.  Such is William Osler

While he is well-known in the medical field, little is mentioned of him in the Christian circle. William Osler was a Canadian physician whose influence transcended the Atlantic.  He was one of the four professors who founded the renowned John Hopkins School of Medicine in 1893.  At the time of his death in 1919, he was the Professor of Medicine at Oxford, England.  He introduced bedside teaching during ward rounds, the residency programme with on-call doctors staying in the hospital, namely the residents, and more senior doctors on-call from home.  So much so that he wanted as his epitaph, “that I taught medical students on the wards, as I regard this as by far the most useful and important work, I have been called upon to do.”

Early Life

A first generation Canadian, William Osler was born in Ontario on 12th July 1849.  His father was a minister of the Church of England from Falmouth, Cornwall.  William initially wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and as an 18-year old enrolled at Trinity College, Toronto.  However, he had a change of heart and the following year switched course to study at Toronto School of Medicine, a private medical school.  Later he was accepted by McGill University, Montreal, graduating in 1872 at the age of 23.  So, the would-be pastor became a doctor.

Medical Career

Following post-graduate training in Europe, William returned to the McGill University Faculty of Medicine as a 25-year old professor.  His emphasis on the importance of reading and continuous professional development (CPD) in one’s medical career was evident when he started the first journal club.  He once said, “It is astonishing with how little reading a doctor can practice medicine but is not astonishing how badly he may do it.”

He was a bibliophile, a lover of books, of which he once said, “It is much simpler to buy books than to read them, and easier to read them than to absorb their contents.”  How many of us buy books, thinking that we’ll come to read them one day?

Doctors need Equanimity & Imperturbability

In 1884, at the age of 35, he was appointed Chair of Clinical Medicine at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.  When he left Philadelphia in 1889, his farewell speech was called. “Aequanimitas”.  In it, he pointed out a characteristic necessary for doctors, “equanimity”.  In Latin, it means “having an even mind”.  It is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by the experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.  The synonym for “equanimity” is “imperturbability” which can also be defined as “coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril, immobility or impassiveness.”

Important medical textbooks

Osler’s prowess as a clinical teacher was evident when in 1892 he authored The Principles and Practice of Medicine which remained in production until 2001.  Many doctors would remember this book which they used as medical students. 

Osler gave credit where it is due regardless of race and religion.  Although his own textbook was a major influence in medicine for many years, Osler considered Avicenna as the “author of the most famous medical textbook ever written”, Canon of Medicine which he described as “a medical bible for a longer time than any other work”.  Avicenna is better known in Malaysia as Ibnu Sina, a Persian physician (980 to 1037 AD) during the Islamic Golden Age.

Johns Hopkins Schoo of Medicine

In 1893, Osler as a physician, together with a pathologist, a surgeon and a gynecologist, was instrumental in setting up the renowned Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and presided over its rapid expansion.

Sixteen years later, in 1905, age 56, William Osler was head-hunted by University of Oxford.  He was appointed to the Regius Chair of Medicine, which he held until his death on 29th December 1919, age 70, ironically during the Spanish flu epidemic.  He was also a Fellow of Christ Church College.

Sir William Osler, though do not have a dog collar, sure has plenty to teach us Christians

“Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.”

Osler The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.  Often the best part of your work will have nothing to do with potions and powder, but with the exercise of an influence of the strong upon the weak, of the righteous upon the wicked and of the wise upon the foolish.

“The hardest conviction to get into the mind of a beginner is that the education upon which he is engaged is not a college course, not a medical course but a life course, for which the work of a few years under teachers is but a preparation.”  

The latter is known as apprenticeship or mentoring. Hence a doctor must have the humility to pursue continuous professional development.

Osler  Humility does not mean putting oneself down. It means knowing your own limitations, knowing that you are not God; you don’t know it all and cannot heal all.

“The young doctor should look about early for an avocation, a pastime, that will take him away from patients, pills and potions,” after all “No man is really happy or safe without a hobby.”

Osler  I have a confession to make. Half of what we have taught you is in error, and furthermore, we cannot tell you which half it is.

“The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.”

Osler  Live neither in the past nor in the future, but let each day absorb all your interest, energy and enthusiasm. The best preparation for tomorrow is to live today superbly well.

“Shut out all of your past except those that will help you weather your tomorrows.

Osler  We are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from life.

“The practice of medicine will be very much as you make it – to one a worry, a care, a perpetual annoyance; to another, a daily job and a life of as much happiness and usefulness as can well fall to the lot of man, because it is a life of self-sacrifice and of countless opportunities to comfort and help the weak- hearted, and to raise up those that fall.”.

Dr Chuah Seong York hails from Taiping, Malaysia.  He graduated from Wales, UK.  After working in the UK for 7 years, he joined the University of Malaya as academic staff for 4 years.  He is now in the private sector.  Seong York accepted Christ in 1993.  He likes to give talks and writes especially on the philosophical and ethical aspects of medical practice.  A frequent contributor to Letters to the Editor in The Star, he has also authored 2 medical books for patients in Chinese.



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