Sir William Osler (1849-1919)

William Osler, one of Canada's most renowned physicians, is known for his many contributions to medical education. Osler studied medicine at McGill University and graduated at the top of his class in 1872. A few years later, he returned to teach both medicine and veterinary medicine at McGill in Montreal. In his early years of teaching, he became increasingly known as an enthusiastic teacher, compassionate physician, and knowledgeable clinician. He carried these attributes with him as he went on to become the Chief of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the new medical school in Maryland, Baltimore.

During his sixteen years at Johns Hopkins, William Osler revolutionized the teaching of medicine in medical schools across both the US and Canada. He put great emphasis on the clinical environment and argued that the most effective teaching of students was at the bedside. Osler often assembled a handful of medical students to accompany him on his rounds, thereby providing students with plenty of opportunities to observe and ask questions. This shift from a didactic teaching method, which focused on textbook and lecture-based learning, to a more clinical approach, emphasizing the importance of bedside teaching, certainly transformed medical education.

In 1892, Osler published "The Principles and Practice of Medicine: Designed for the Use of Practitioners and Students of Medicine." This text, which stressed the significance of practical training during medical school, greatly influenced medicine for years to come. In 1905, Osler was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, the most prestigious medical position one could obtain in Great Britain. Although he remained in Britain with his family until the time of his death in 1919, Osler never renounced his Canadian citizenship. In his will, he donated his historical library to McGill University where it resides to this day.

Sir William Osler remains among the most highly esteemed physicians in modern medicine. He is celebrated today not only for his contributions to the advancement of medical education, but also for the humanism he brought to practice of medicine. This humanism is perhaps best exemplified in the following:

"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." [(6), p. 44].

The teachings of Sir William Osler emphasize an ideal which we must constantly aspire to, as medical students, residents, physicians, and most importantly, as human beings (5).

For a photograph of Sir William Osler and biographical information, go to Library and Archives Canada. Famous Canadian Physicians, Sir William Osler (4) <>.

© University of Ottawa
For additional information, consult our list of contacts
Technical questions?
Last updated: 2015.09.08