Sir William Osler (1849 – 1919), British (Canadian-born) physician and mentor to the team at LITFL is renowned for his pithy, memorable and defining quotations. We reproduce some of these thoughts for you on this page.
Osler Works and References
- Osler Special edition: Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. 1919: XXX(34):183-220
- Camac CNB. Counsels and ideals. 1921
- Silverman ME, Bryan CS, Murray TJ. The Quotable Osler. 2008
- Osler W. Aequanimitas: with other addresses to medical students, nurses and practitioners of medicine. 1914 (2e)
- Osler W. An Alabama student and other biographical essays. 1908
- Osler W. Man’s redemption of man. 1910
- Osler W. The old humanities and the new science. 1919
- Osler W. Bibliotheca Osleriana. 1929. A Catalogue of Books Illustrating the History of Medicine and Science
- Osler W. Modern Medicine: its theory and practice. 1907. [Vol I][Vol II][Vol III][Vol IV][Vol V][Vol VI][Vol VII]
**Foot note: Men and Books (1959) Collated by LITFL
Men and Books was collated as a 67 page tome in 1959. Articles were taken from the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association Journal between 1911-1914
- I. Nicholas Steno. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):67
- II. Les Collections. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):68
- III. Samuel Wilks. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):70
- IV. Jean Astruc and the Higher criticism. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):70
- V. Two Frenchmen on laughter. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):152
- VI. An incident in the life of Harvey. CMAJ 1912;(II):246
- VII. Letters of Laennec. CMAJ 1912;(II):247
- VIII. Dr Payne’s Library. CMAJ 1912;(II):248
- IX. Funeral of Lord Lister. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):343
- X. Gui Patin. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):429
- XI. George Boddington. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):526
- XII. Histoire de la Charite. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):527
- XIII. School of Physic, Dublin. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):833
- XIV. Kelly’s American Biography. CMAJ 1912;(II):938
- XV. John Caius MD. CMAJ 1912;(II):1034
- XVI. William Beaumont. CMAJ 1912;(II):1136
- XVII. The Young Laennec. Men and Books. CMAJ 1913;(III):137
- XVIII. Mediaeval Medicine. Men and Books. CMAJ 1913;(III):140
- XIX. Robert Fletcher. Men and Books. CMAJ 1913;(III):227
- XX. Jaques Benigne Winslow. Men and Books. CMAJ 1913;(III):227
- XXI. Aristotle. Men and Books. CMAJ 1913;(III):416
- XXII. Dr Slop. Men and Books. CMAJ 1913;(III):612
- XXIII. John Shaw Billings. Men and Books. CMAJ 1913;(III):613
- XXIV. Israel and Medicine. Men and Books. CMAJ 1914;(IV):729
- XXV. Looking back-1889. Men and Books. CMAJ 1914;(IV):1012
- XXVI. Nathan Smith. Men and Books. CMAJ 1914;(IV):1109
Perfect happiness for student and teacher will come with the abolition of examinations, which are stumbling blocks and rocks of offense in the pathway of the true student.William Osler. “After 25 years” Aequanimitas. 1914:202
With too many, unfortunately, working habits are not cultivated until the constraining dread of an approaching exam is felt, when the hopeless attempt is made to cram the work of two years into a six month’ session, with results only too evident to your examiners.William Osler. Introductory Lecture on the Opening of the Forty-Fifth Session of the Medical Faculty, McGill University. 1877. Canada Medical and Surgical Journal 1877;6(5):193-210 [Original PDF]
It has been said that ‘in patience ye shall win your souls,’ and what is this patience but an equanimity which enables you to rise superior to the trials of life?William Osler, Aequanimitas. ‘Aequanimitas’ 1904:4
But whatever you do, take neither yourselves nor your fellow-creatures too seriously. There is tragedy enough in our daily routine, but there is room too for a keen sense of the absurdities and incongruities of life, and in the shifting panorama no one sees better than the doctor the perennial sameness of men’s ways.William Osler: The Reserves of Life. St. Mary’s Hospital gazette 1907;13:95-8
The young doctor should look about early for an avocation, a pastime, that will take him away from patients, pills, and potions…William Osler BMJ 1909;2:925-928.
I am firmly convinced that the best book in medicine is the book of Nature, as writ large in the bodies of men. You remember the answer of the immortal Hunter, when asked what books the student should read in anatomy – he opened the door of the dissecting-room and pointed to the tables.Osler W. The natural method of teaching the subject of medicine. JAMA 1901;XXXVI (24): 1673–9.
While medicine is to be your vocation, or calling, see to it that you have also an avocation – some intellectual pastime which may serve to keep you in touch with the world of art, of science, or of letters.William Osler, Aequanimitas. ‘After 25 years‘ 1904:213
One special advantage of the skeptical attitude of mind is that a man is never vexed to find that after all he has been in the wrong.William Osler: The Treatment of Disease. Canada Lancet 1909;42:899-912.
Nothing will sustain you more potently than the power to recognize in your humdrum routine, as perhaps it may be thought, the true poetry of life – the poetry of the commonplace, of the plain, toil-worn woman, with their loves and their joys, their sorrows and their griefsWilliam Osler: Aequanimitas ‘The Student Life’ 1914:413
It helps a man immensely to be a bit of a hero-worshipper, and the stories of the lives of the masters of medicine do much to stimulate our ambition and rouse our sympathies.William Osler: Aequanimitas ‘Chauvanism in Medicine’ 1914:288
If the license to practise meant the completion of his education how sad it would be for the practitioner, how distressing to his patients! More clearly than other the physician should illustrate the truth of Plato’s saying that education is a life-long process.William Osler. “An address on The Importance of Post-graduate Study.” Lancet. 1900;156(4011):73-75
I desire no other epitaph… than the statement that I taught medical students in the wards, as I regard this as by far the most useful and important work I have been called upon to do.William Osler: Aequanimitas, ‘The Fixed Period’ 1914:407.
Care more particularly for the individual patient than for the especial features of the diseaseWilliam Osler, Address to the students of the Albany Medical College. Albany Medical Annals. 1899;20:307-309
Our study is man, as the subject of accidents or disease. Were he always, inside and outside, cast in the same mould, instead of differing from his fellow man as much in constitution and in his reaction to stimulus as in feature, we should ere this have reached some settled principles in our art.William Osler. Aequanimitas “Teacher and Student” 1914:35
Every patient you see is a lesson in much more than the malady from which he suffers.William Osler: Aequanimitas “The Student Life” 1914:425.
To serve the art of medicine as it should be served, one must love his fellow man.William Osler. Modern medicine, its theory and practice. 1907;(1):34
Keep a looking glass in your own heart, and the more carefully you scan your own frailties, the more tender you are for those of your fellow creatures.Homan E quoting Sir William Osler:Teacher and bibliophile. JAMA 1969;210:2223-5
The whole art of medicine is in observation… but to educate the eye to see, the ear to hear and the finger to feel takes time, and to make a beginning, to start a man on the right path, is all that you can do.William Osler. “The Hospital as a College” Aequanimitas. 1914:332
Learn to see, learn to hear, learn to feel, learn to smell, and know that by practice alone can you become expert.Thayer WS quotes Osler in “Osler the Teacher” Johns Hopkins Bulletin 1919:XXX;198
Get the patient in a good light. Use your five senses. We miss more by not seeing than we do by not knowing. Always examine the back. Observe, record, tabulate, communicate.Abbott ME. of William Osler. The pathological collections of the late Sir William Osler at McGill University. Bulletin of the International Association of Medical Museums 1926;IX: 185-199
Medicine is learned by the bedside and not in the classroom. Let not your concepts of the manifestations of disease come from words heard in the lecture room or read from the book. See, and then reason and compare and control. But see first. No two eyes see the same thing. No two mirrors give forth the same reflection. Let your word be your slave and not your master.Thayer WS quotes Osler in “Osler the Teacher” Johns Hopkins Bulletin 1919:XXX;198
Like song that sweetens toil, laughter brightens the road of life, and to be born with the sense of comic is a precious heritage.William Osler ‘Two Frenchman on Laughter‘, CMAJ 1912(II):152
The greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatismWilliam Osler: Aequanimitas ‘Chauvanism in Medicine’ 1914:301
The young doctor should look about early for an avocation, a pastime, that will take him away from patients, pills, and potions…William Osler: Aequanimitas ‘After 25 years’ 1914:212
By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy – indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction.William Osler: Aequanimitas ‘Unity, Peace and Concord’ 1914:457
Now the way of life that I preach is a habit to be acquired gradually by long and steady repetition. It is the practice of living for the day only, and for the day’s work.William Osler. A Way of Life. 1913:23
Many a man is handicapped in his course by a cursed combination of retro- and introspection, the mistakes of yesterday paralyzing the efforts of to-day, the worries of the past hugged to his destruction, and the worm Regret allowed to canker the very heart of his life. To die daily, after the manner of St. Paul, ensures the resurrection of a new man, who makes each day the epitome of a life.William Osler. A Way of Life. 1913:32
No dreams, no visions, no delicious fantasies, no castles in the air, with which, as the old song so truly says, “hearts are broken, heads are turned.”William Osler. A Way of Life. 1913:19
At the outset do not be worried about this big question — Truth. It is a very simple matter if each one of you starts with the desire to get as much as possible. No human being is constituted to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; and even the best of men must be content with fragments, with partial glimpses, never the full fruition.William Osler: Aequanimitas ‘The Student Life’ 1914:416
Shut off the past! Let the dead past bury its dead. So easy to say, so hard to realize! The truth is, the past haunts us like a shadow.William Osler. A Way of Life. 1913:29
Thucydides it was who said of the Greeks that they possessed “the power of thinking before they acted, and of acting, too.” The same is true in a high degree of the English race. To know just what has to be done, then to do it, comprises the whole philosophy of practical life.William Osler: Aequanimitas,British Medicine in Greater Britain’ 1914:177
There are only two sorts of doctors: those who practice with their brains, and those who practice with their tongues.William Osler: Aequanimitas, ‘Teaching and Thinking’ 1914:131
The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.William Osler: Aequanimitas ‘Chauvanism in Medicine’ 1914:288
One finger in the throat and one in the rectum makes a good diagnostician.
The future is today, there is no to-morrow! The day of a man’s salvation is now – the life of the present, of today, lived earnestly, intently, without a forward-looking thought, is the only insurance for the future. Let the limit of your horizon be a twenty-four hour circle.William Osler. A Way of Life. 1913:19
But know also, man has an inborn craving for medicine. Heroic dosing for several generations has given his tissues a thirst for drugs…the desire to take medicine is one feature which distinguishes man, the animal, from his fellow creatures.William Osler: Aequanimitas, ‘Teaching and Thinking’ 1914:131
Live neither in the past nor in the future, but let each day’s work absorb your entire energies, and satisfy your widest ambition.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘After 25 years.’ 1914:213
The very first step towards success in any occupation is to become interested in it.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘The Master-word in medicine.’ 1914:376
What is the student but a lover courting a fickle mistress who ever eludes his grasp?William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘The Student Life.’ 1914:416
To study the phenomena of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea, while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘Books and Men.’ 1914:220
There is no more difficult art to acquire than the art of observation, and for some men it is quite as difficult to record an observation in brief and plain language.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘On the educational value of the Medical Society.’ 1914:357
The teacher’s life should have three periods, study until twenty-five, investigation until forty, profession until sixty, at which age I would have him retired on a double allowance.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘The Fixed Period.’ 1914:400
No human being is constituted to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; and even the best of men must be content with fragments, with partial glimpses, never the full fruition.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘The Student Life.’ 1914:416
No bubble is so iridescent or floats longer than that blown by the successful teacher.William Osler. The Pathological Institute of a General Hospital. Glasgow Med J. 1911 Nov; 76(5): 321–333.
There is a form of laughter that springs from the heart, heard every day in the merry voice of childhood, the expression of a laughter — loving spirit that defies analysis by the philosopher, which has nothing rigid or mechanical in it, and totally without social significance. Bubbling spontaneously from the heart of child or man. Without egotism and full of feeling, laughter is the music of life.William Osler. Two Frenchmen on laughter. Men and Books. CMAJ 1912;(II):152
Work is the open sesame of every portal, the great equalizer in the world, the true philosopher’s stone which transmutes all the base metal of humanity into gold.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘The Master-word in medicine.’ 1914:373
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. Often the best part of your work will have nothing to do with potions and powders, but with the exercise of an influence of the strong upon the weak, of the righteous upon the wicked, of the wise upon the foolish.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘The Master-word in medicine.’ 1914:386
For the general practitioner a well-used library is one of the few correctives of the premature senility which is so apt to take him.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘Books and Men.’ 1914:221
To confess ignorance is often wiser than to beat about the bush with a hypothetical diagnosis.William Osler. Counsels and ideals. 1921:214
Perhaps no sin so easily besets us as a sense of self-satisfied superiority to others.William Osler: Aequanimitas ‘Chauvanism in Medicine’ 1914:284
The successful teacher is no longer on a height, pumping knowledge at high pressure into passive receptacles.William Osler: Aequanimitas ‘The Student Life’ 1914:418
Courage and cheerfulness will not only carry you over the rough places of life, but will enable you to bring comfort and help to the weak-hearted and will console you in the sad hours when, like Uncle Toby, you have “to whistle, that you may not weep.”William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘The Master-word in medicine.’ 1914:386
Things cannot always go your way. Learn to accept in silence the minor aggravations, cultivate the gift of taciturnity and consume your own smoke with an extra draught of hard work, so that those about you may not be annoyed with the dust and soot of your complaint.William Osler. Aequanimitas ‘The Master-word in medicine.’ 1914:385
The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.William Osler: Source unknown
The first duties of the physician is to educate the masses not to take medicine.William Osler: Source unknown
The young physician starts life with twenty drugs for each disease, and the old physician ends life with one drug for twenty diseases.William Osler: Source unknown
Soap and water and common sense are the best disinfectants.
The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.
We are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from it.
Observe, record, tabulate, communicate. Use your five senses. Learn to see, learn to hear, learn to feel, learn to smell, and know that by practice alone you can become expert.
Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.
Look wise, say nothing, and grunt. Speech was given to conceal thought.
Half of us are blind, few of us feel, and we are all deaf.
It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has.
Varicose veins are the result of an improper selection of grandparents.
Shut out all of your past except that which will help you weather your tomorrows.
We are constantly misled by the ease with which our minds fall into the ruts of one or two experiences
Medicine is learned by the bedside and not in the classroom. Let not your conceptions of disease come from words heard in the lecture room or read from the book. See, and then reason and compare and control. But see first.
A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient.
The higher education so much needed today is not given in the school, is not to be bought in the market place, but it has to be wrought out in each one of us for himself; it is the silent influence of character on character.
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