An Autopsy of Dr. Osler

Sir William Osler M.D.
Sir William Osler M.D.; drawing by David Levine


In the early summer of 1885, a thirty-six-year-old professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania crossed the Delaware River to visit an elderly man with a “transient indisposition.” When William Osler walked into a front room on the ground floor of 328 Mickle Street, Camden, New Jersey, Walt Whitman—his new patient—was sitting in a corner. Over thirty years later, Osler, who was by then an immensely influential professor of medicine, recalled the moment:

With a large frame, and well shaped, well poised head, covered with a profusion of snow-white hair, which mingled on the cheeks with a heavy long beard and moustache, Walt Whitman in his 65th year was a fine figure of a man who had aged beautifully, or more properly speaking majestically. The eyebrows were thick and shaggy and the man seemed lost in a hirsute canopy….

The scene astonished Osler. “The magazines and newspapers, piled higher than the desk, covered the floor so completely that I had to pick my way by the side of the wall of the room to get to the desk.” After his house call, Osler began to read Leaves of Grass for the first time. The result was not pleasing to him: “Whether the meat was too strong, or whether it was the style of cooking—’twas not for my pampered palate, accustomed to Plato and Shakespeare and Shelley and Keats.”

Whitman’s view of Osler was similarly ambivalent. A man who was frequently pessimistic and bad-tempered about his own physical state, Whitman wrote, in 1888, that “Osler made light of my condition. I don’t like his pooh-poohs: the professional air of a doctor grates on me.” When, for example, Osler recommended that he “never let his bowels be closed more than two days,” Whitman replied, “I will ‘let’: it’s not a question of ‘letting’: if that was all there was about it, the matter could easily be settled.” And Osler’s incessant cheerfulness sometimes produced the opposite result of that intended: “I confess I do not wholly like or credit what he says—I do not fancy the jaunty way in which he seems inclined to dismiss the troubles.”

Despite these complaints, Whitman concluded that Osler was “very ‘cute, a natural physician, rather optimistic, but best so”; that “he is relieving me: no doctor could do more”; that “he is a great man—one of the rare men: I should be much surprised if he didn’t soar way way up—get very famous at his trade—some day: he has the air of the thing about him—of achievement.” Osler, he wrote, “is fine looking: examined, he gains on you: you realize him: his forehead is beautiful.”

Whitman had good reason to be an accurate judge of his doctor. In Specimen Days he had chronicled a period during the American Civil War when he assisted wounded soldiers in a Washington hospital by tending their…

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