Opinion: No pedestal for medical pioneer Sir William Osler

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In 2018, I was involved with the #aHand2Hold campaign to put an end to a longstanding practice enforced by Évacuations aéromédicales du Québec (ÉVAQ) that prevented caregivers from accompanying their children on flying hospital medevac airlifts. The non-accompaniment rule had a disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities in northern Quebec. This institutional trauma of forced family separation became normalized amid a culture in medicine that dehumanizes individuals and stigmatizes entire communities. There is no one individual who is responsible for this culture, but some have exerted greater influence than others. The example of Sir William Osler is instructive.

Often referred to as the “Father of Modern Medicine,” Osler was a graduate of McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and is considered one of its most illustrious alumni. He taught medical trainees in North America and Europe and his global influence persists to this day. Yet, few know that Osler espoused racist and eugenicist views. In the 1880s, under the pseudonym of Egerton Yorrick Davis, described as a U.S. Army Surgeon based in “Caugnawauga” (Kahnawake), Osler wrote an unpublished paper that used words like “ludicrous,” “disgusting” and “vile animal habit” to allegedly chronicle Indigenous marital and obstetric practices. The prank essay was famously suppressed, but nonetheless became an inside joke among generations of white male physicians who evidently weren’t bothered by its racist and sexist content. In 1893, Osler expressed his hatred of “Latin-Americans” in a letter to a medical colleague. At Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he was a founding physician, he did not work to end racial segregation on the hospital wards. In 1912, he was listed as one of the vice-presidents of the first international eugenics congress in England. In 1914, Osler’s advice to the recently appointed governor general about Asian migration to Canada was odious: “We are bound to make our country a white man’s country”.

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