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Osler, Dr. William (1849–1919)

Born in Bond Head, Ontario, Canada, Osler graduated from the McGill University medical school in 1872. In 1884, shortly after joining the University of Pennsylvania, he became Walt Whitman's physician at the request of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke. For the next five years Osler treated without charge the ailing Whitman, seeing him through several crises but never joining the inner circle of worshipers such as Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, Thomas Donaldson, Horace Traubel, and others.

Though Whitman valued Osler's medical skills, he sometimes complained of the doctor's optimism, a characteristic for which generations of medical students idolized him as he transformed the coldly analytical method of making hospital rounds. Osler dispelled gloom and radiated cheer, listening attentively to each patient's complaints as an essential part of the clinical evaluation. In 1888, Whitman said Osler "is a great man—one of the rare men: I should be much surprised if he did n't soar way way up—get very famous at his trade—some day: he has the air of the thing about him—of achievement" (Traubel 391). Whitman's prediction proved accurate: Osler became the most beloved and famous medical doctor in the English-speaking world.

In late 1889 Osler left Philadelphia to help establish the Johns Hopkins medical school in Baltimore. There he completed his pathbreaking medical treatise The Principles and Practice of Medicine, published in 1892, the year of Whitman's death. By 1930 the book had gone into its eleventh edition and had been translated into four languages. Shortly after the publication of his book, Osler married a widow, Grace Revere Gross, a direct descendant of Paul Revere. In 1904 Osler accepted the chair of Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, further ensuring his place as an icon of his profession. He was made a baronet by King George V in 1911.


Cushing, Harvey. The Life of Sir William Osler. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1925.

Leon, Philip W. Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and His Physician. Toronto: ECW, 1995.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 3. 1914. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.

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