Notman Photographic Archives, McCord Museum of Canadian History. [1881]


Tour of Osler's Montreal 1870-1885


July 12th, 1999, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth, in Bond Head, Ontario, of one of the most celebrated physicians the western world has known. Sir William Osler (the baronetcy was conferred in 1911) obtained his medical degree at McGill in 1872 and after two years of postgraduate work abroad, returned to Montreal to teach in McGill's Faculty of Medicine and to work as physician and pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital. In 1884, Osler became Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1889 he left for Baltimore to be Professor of Medicine and Physician-in-Chief at the new Johns Hopkins Medical School and Hospital. In 1904 Osler was offered the Regius Professorship at Oxford, a post he took up in 1905 and held until his death in Oxford in 1919.

Everywhere Osler went, he left a lasting legacy of accomplishment, particularly in the field of medical education. McGill, where he introduced many reforms, provided a favourable environment for change. His teacher and colleague, Robert Palmer Howard, described his effect on the Faculty of Medicine as similar to that produced by a "potent ferment". At Pennsylvania he introduced teaching at the bedside rather than in the lecture hall, and opened a small clinical laboratory in the hospital. At the new Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore he and his colleagues William Halsted, William Welch and Howard Kelly, created a centre of excellence for medical education, with senior staff teaching at the bedside, and students included in the team giving care. Osler's Principles and Practice of Medicine, published in 1892, became the authoritative text for decades and inspired the foundation of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

By the time Osler took up his post at Oxford, in 1905, he was at the peak of his career and his fame, and was everywhere in demand. Despite hopes for a rest and a change from his hectic schedule, he soon involved himself in innumerable commitments and issues. The World War of 1914-1918, however, exhausted him and brought personal tragedy in the death of his only son, Revere, who was serving in France. Osler died in 1919, leaving a legacy of humanism in medicine which survives to this day.

What was Montreal like in Osler's day? Industry was developing in suburbs to the east and along the Lachine Canal to the west. New municipalities were popping up along the city's periphery. Railway construction linked the city with Halifax to the east and Vancouver to the west, not to mention Chicago and New York. But things were not quite so rosy as the grand homes of the Square Mile, the imposing offices of Saint James Street, or the pastoral McGill campus might suggest.

Poverty was widespread, and working conditions were poor enough not only to produce major incidents of conflict between labour and capital, but also to attract the attention of different levels of government. And the period was by no means immune to linguistic, political and religious conflicts. Nor was Montreal a stranger to disease, as smallpox, cholera, and other epidemics dogged the residents of the city throughout the nineteenth century.

There was little agreement on what to do in the face of these threats. Public health measures proved controversial - compulsory vaccinations and quarantines brought riots more often than cooperation - throughout the period. Despite an atmosphere of economic recession, however, which marked much of the period, Montreal was slowly but surely entering its golden age as Canada's Metropolis.

Apart from buildings on the McGill Campus, old-Montreal, the church of St. John The Evangelist, and elements of the old Montreal General Hospital built in 1821 (partly demolished in the early 1950s to widen Dorchester Boulevard) architectural witnesses to Osler's Montreal have disappeared. It is still possible to trace the neighbourhoods of Montreal in which he lived and worked. Using Montreal street atlases, it is possible to find the names of colleagues on the lots their houses occupied. Contemporary photographs bring Osler and his Montreal haunts back to life.


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