On Sir Osler

“Monday Musings” for Monday June 27, 2016
Volume VI. No. 26/286


SIR WILLIAM OSLER, the Quintessential Role Model for Every Physician

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

“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.”

Aequanimitas: An address to medical students, May 1, 1899 By Sir William Osler (1849-1919)


From time to time, I am asked to give the faculty and student convocation and/or the commencement address to various medical schools. We are fortunate to have hundreds of sources and resources of wisdom and reflection. The available literature, starting with the celestial books of Avesta of Zoroaster, Torah of Moses, Forghan of David, the Bible, the Quoran, millions of words written by giants of humanity and spirituality, such as Saint Augustine of Hippo, Moses Maimonedes of Cordoba and Ibn Khaldoun, comtemporary existential work horses, such as Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Hidegger, Jean Paul Sarte, Albert Camu, and others like Rabelais, Shakespeare, Montesquieu, John Locke, Voltaire, Marcel Proust, just to name a few, offer abundance. Plato’s collected work, Homer’s Iliad and Odessy, Germany’s Goethe, Farsi’s Shahnameh, Russia’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Poshkin, all provide us with a vast ocean of knowledge and wisdom, with an open invitation to come in swim, or just sit and enjoy the water…

But I find myself using three sources for inspiration more than others. Their eloquence is truly exceptional. They are Lincoln, Churchill, Sir William Osler and Mahatma Gandhi. I especially recommend reading Osler’s speech on May 1, 1889 at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine. This was his farewell address, since the next morning, he moved to Johns Hopkins University to assume the Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine.

There is a fascinating story about Sir William Osler and his contemporary portraitist, Thomas Eakins. In February 1889, the 25 members of the Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania raised $750.00 to hire Eakins to paint a three quarter length portrait of the retiring professor of surgery David Hayes Agnew. The students wanted it to be ready to be dedicated on graduation day, May 1, 1889. Eakins pulled it off. The 6 by 11 ft painting was unveiled on May 1, 1889. The address was dedicated to Daniel C Gilman, the former President of the Johns Hopkins University. It was titled “Aecquanimita,” the quality of imperturbility required of physicians. “Osler and his students later collected all of the professor’s speeches which were later published in a handsome volume by the same title–must reading–.

The take home message of the collected work : Osler encouraged calm and dispassionate discourse, curiosity and ideas. He saw no room for hysteria and emotionalism where motion and turbulence take the place of calm reasoning and meticulous hard work. Aecquanimitas indeed.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association; Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association; and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He is a Raleigh, North Carolina writer and dramaturge.



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