A Day in the Life of Sir William Osler

Snowed in by a fierce Nor’easter, with our clinic as well as every other outpatient facility within 100 miles closed for the day, I stoked the fire in our wood stove, pulled up my high back chair and read for a couple of hours.

I returned to my treasured, signed copy of Harvey Cushing’s biography of Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine. On page 431, under the subheading ’He Knew Not Idleness’, Cushing quotes a senior assistant’s account of Osler’s daily routine.

This description may be surprising to those who only know Osler by his famous quote, “Look wise, say nothing and grunt”:

“At 7 he rose; breakfast before 8. At a few minutes before nine he entered the hospital door. After a morning greeting to the superintendent, humming gaily, with arm passed through that of his assistant, he started with brisk, springing step down the corridor towards the wards. The other arm, if not waving gay or humorous greetings to the nurses or students as they passed, was thrown around the neck or passed through the arms of another colleague or assistant. One by one they gathered about him, and by the time the ward was reached, the little group had generally grown like a small avalanche.

The visit over, to the private ward. For the many convalescents, or the nervous invalid whose mind needed diversion from self, some lively, droll greeting or absurd remark or preposterous and puzzling invention, and away to the next in an explosion of merriment, often amid the laughing but vain appeals of the patient for an opportunity to retaliate. For those who were gravely ill, few words, but a charming and reassuring manner. Then, running the gauntlet of a group of friends or colleagues or students or assistants, all with problems to discuss, he escaped. How? Heaven only knows!

A cold luncheon, always ready, shortly after one. 20 minutes’ rest in his room; then his afternoon hours. At 4:30, in the parlor opposite his consulting room, the clans began to gather, graciously received by dear ’Mrs. Chief’, as lady Osler was affectionately known. Soon the chief entered with a familiar greeting for all. It was an anxious moment for those who had been waiting on for the word that they had been seeking with him. After five or 10 minutes he would rise, and perhaps beckon to the lucky man to follow him to his study. More often he slipped quietly from the room and in a minute reappeared at the door in his overcoat, hat in hand. A gay wave of the hand, ’Good-bye’, and he was off to his consultations.

Dinner at seven to which impartially and often, his assistants were invited. In the evening he did no set work, and retired early to his study where, his wife by the fire, he signed letters and cleared up the affairs of the day. Between 10 and 11 o’clock, to bed. Such were his days. Three mornings in the week he took at home for work. He utilized every minute of this time. Much of his summer vacation went to his studies. On railway, in cab, on his way to and from consultations, in tramway, and in the old ’bobtailed’ car that used to carry us to the hospital, book and pencil were ever in his hand, and wherever he was, the happy thought was caught on the wing and noted down. His ability at a glance to grasp and to remember the gist of the article that he read was extraordinary.

His power to hold the mastery of his time was remarkable. He escaped as by magic, so graciously, so engagingly that, despair though one might, one could hardly be irritated. No one could speak consecutively to Osler against his will. How did he do it? I know not.”

(W.S. Thayer, ‘Osler’. The Nation, N.Y., Jan. 24, 1920.)

It makes me reflect:

Time, my old arch enemy, is always on my mind. Over the years, I have managed to adopt a somewhat Oslerian persona, which tries to make every minute, and every brief encounter, count in the mind of my patients and in my own pursuit of forward movement in each clinical case I encounter.

But most days I don’t know that I am anywhere nearly as skillful as the old master in navigating through it.

He probably capitalized on his larger-than-life reputation and position in the world of medicine. I have only a local reputation and the position that career longevity and mature appearance bestows me, like my silver haired temples and my wrinkled hands and face.

But the one thing I know and sense every day in the clinic is: If for a single moment my love of my profession or the connection I feel with my patients and my coworkers is clouded or briefly forgotten, the pace of my workday becomes almost unbearable.

It is only when I am carried by the momentum of my greater purpose that I can make every one of my brief encounters with my fellow human beings count and be healing in any sort of way.

1 Response to “A Day in the Life of Sir William Osler”


  1. 1 perri smith February 20, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    You remind me of my first, and longest lasting, old family doctor. Fond memories of back when he had time to ‘visit’ with patients. When the new-fangled machines came along instead of real paper notes, I think he saw the beginning of the end of old time medicine, as did we all.


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