The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 7, 2001
May 7, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 33


Tribute: Osler Textbook Room, lecture honor SOM Co-Founder

Room in Billings to house furnishings and other items used by famous physician

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

While William Osler was learning his trade in medical school, he came upon a famous quote by Thomas Carlyle that was to become his personal motto: "Our main business in life is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand." Osler, who became the pre-eminent physician of his day and was one of the founders of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was, by anyone's definition, a doer.

In 1891, Osler's task at hand was the creation of a new medical textbook. The profession's standard at the time--first published some 40 years prior--was considered profoundly out-of-date, and Osler set out to pen a new treatise on general medicine. Looking for a place to do his research and write, Osler settled on the sitting room of Hunter Robb, The Johns Hopkins Hospital's chief resident in gynecology at the time. Each hospital resident in those days was given a bedroom and adjoining sitting room in what is now JHMI's Billings Administration Building. Robb not only had the largest of such rooms, he also had the quietest, located at the end of the hall.

William Osler at work in Hunter Robb's sitting room, which on Friday will officially become the Osler Textbook Room. It was at this desk in 1891 that Osler wrote "The Principles and Practice of Medicine," which quickly became the pre-eminent textbook in medical education.

Osler moved into the room on May 1, and except for a brief interim in August, ensconced himself there until the middle of October, when the manuscript was finished. He is known to have jokingly referred to the period as the time he "kicked the Robb-in out of his nest."

Stephen Achuff, David J. Carver Professor of Medicine at the School of Medicine, says the work Osler did during those six months literally changed the face of medicine. Osler's textbook, titled The Principles and Practice of Medicine, was instantly hailed for its brilliance of scholarship and high literary quality.

"As soon as it came out, it was the textbook in medicine for the whole world essentially, and remained so for decades," Achuff says. "That textbook had an enormous influence on medicine."

Stephen Achuff and Victor McKusick, who spearheaded the effort to honor the co-founder of the School of Medicine, in what will be known as the Osler Textbook Room.

Even if he had done no other work, with the publishing of The Principles and Practice of Medicine, the then 41-year-old Osler forever cemented his place in history.

In celebration of the 150th birthday in 1999 of this legendary figure, the Department of Medicine decided to honor its first chairman through the establishment of the Osler Textbook Room, created in the space where he wrote his famous textbook. The room will be officially dedicated at a reception to be held between 4:30 and 6 p.m. on Friday, May 11, on the first floor of Billings.

The Osler Textbook Room will house a number of Osler memorabilia, including his chair and the desk upon which he wrote his textbook, his stethoscope, the sterling silver loving cup presented to him by students when he left Hopkins in 1905, photographs and a large collection of writings by and about Osler. On prominent display will be a first edition of The Principles and Practice of Medicine, inscribed to School of Medicine co-founder William Welch. The room will be furnished and decorated in a style compatible with the 1890s; the only major detractor to the motif will be an audio-visual display for video presentations.

In collaboration with the dedication, on the same day the School of Medicine will host the inaugural John P. McGovern Lectureship in Oslerian Medicine, to be held at 9 a.m. in the Turner Auditorium. Jeremiah Barondess, a university trustee emeritus and a student of Oslerian ideals, will be the speaker. The lecture series is endowed by and named after the co-founder of the American Osler Society.

William Osler in a 1905 portrait.

Victor McKusick, University Professor of Medical Genetics and former chair of the Department of Medicine, has, along with Stephen Achuff, spearheaded the development of the room and lecture series. McKusick, an individual well-versed in Hopkins history, says he has for years advocated a permanent memorial to Osler.

"There really has been nothing to recognize Osler's contributions here. Of course there is the Osler Building, but you have to search far and wide for anything significant," says McKusick, referring to Osler's works and personal artifacts.

Achuff, who has studied under McKusick, was in total agreement with his former mentor.

"A lack of a suitable memorial to Dr. Osler was what got us thinking about this particular way to honor him," Achuff says.

McKusick says the room is not intended to be a museum to Osler but a "living, breathing commemoration" to the man.

"One of the purposes of the room is to have a place where people can come and read about Osler. Small groups can meet to discuss the history of medicine and Osler's place in medicine and so on," McKusick says. "It is a tribute to Osler for all he did for Hopkins and medicine in general."

Speaking on the lecture series, McKusick says it is intended to promote the humanistic ideals and wisdom of Osler.

"It's not an opportunity for idolatry of Osler but an opportunity to perpetuate the good aspects of Oslerian medicine, of which there are many," McKusick says, "and to point out, when necessary, aspects that should require modification."

A teacher, physician and leader, equally excelling at all three, Osler said he owed his success primarily to what he referred to as the "master word of medicine," a word capable of making "the stupid man bright, the bright man brilliant." That one term was simply, Work. A charismatic and compassionate gentleman, Osler always found time for patients, students and colleagues.

To honor Osler's dedication to his chosen profession, the textbook room also will be used by the visiting McGovern lecturers as a space in which to meet with members of the Hopkins community.

"We wanted this lectureship to be more than a parachute drop, a quick in-and-out," McKusick says, "but to be a short visiting professorship where they can have contact with the residents, medical students and interested faculty members. In other words, in addition to the lecture itself, for them to have an Oslerian impact here."

Anyone interested in donating Osler memorabilia or knowing the whereabouts of same are asked to call Della Malone at 410-955-6641. McKusick and Achuff are especially interested in locating the first edition of The Principles and Practice of Medicine that was inscribed to Hunter Robb.