Sir William Osler: The Man and His Books

Edited by William Feindel, Elizabeth Maloney, and Pamela Miller. Montreal, QC: Osler Library, 2011. 143pp. $25.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-7717-0709-4.

The Osler Library at McGill University in Montreal contains one of North America's finest collections of medical books and manuscripts. It exists because Sir William Osler (1849-1919), one of the iconic figures in the founding of modern medicine, willed his splendid personal library to the university he had attended as a student and then served as a faculty member. Opened in 1929 in the Faculty of Medicine, the Osler Library is today an active centre for research, an ongoing monument to its founder, and an aesthetically beautiful, peaceful sanctuary for medical students and book-lovers.

Time moves slowly in the tranquility of the Osler Library, so it hardly matters that its latest publication, Sir William Osler: The Man and His Books, is a collection of essays presented thirteen years ago at the library's celebration of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Osler's birth and the seventieth anniversary of its own. Most of the six essays have been updated to incorporate recent scholarship. Three deal with aspects of the Osler Library's collections — its Arabic and Persian manuscripts, its massive holdings of the inaugural theses of Parisian medical students, and its resources for the study of Osler himself and various figures in Montreal medicine. One essay is a detailed examination of the much-beloved "Osler Niche" in the Library, which contains Osler's ashes behind shelves of his own and his favorite books. A somewhat-out-of-place essay, "Three Who Made an Association," describes the founding of the Medical Library Association in 1898. Osler, of course, was one of its founders. Generally, we learn much more about Osler's books than we do about Osler the man, and we are treated to many full-color illustrations on high-gloss paper.

Unfortunately the longest essay in the anthology, "Osler and Francis: Creating the Bibliotheca Osleriana,” is greatly weakened by the excessive reverence for all things Oslerian that has tended to haunt the Osler Library, more often in its early years than today. The three authors are almost absolutely uncritical in their analysis of the quirky, subjective, albeit scholarly catalogue of the original Osler donation of 7787 items. The Bibliotheca was compiled largely by the original Osler Librarian, W.W. Francis, on principles suggested by Sir William. Whereas the authors suggest that his was a prodigious piece of literary scholarship, the result of nine years of dogged, devoted labor, it is actually known (the evidence is in the library's own collections) that Lady Osler disdained Francis as a lazy, unreliable procrastinator; nor was he McGill's first choice to be Osler's Librarian. In my 1999 biography of Osler, William Osler: A Life in Medicine, which the authors cite but appear not to have read, Francis is a somewhat woebegone figure, whose almost pathological worship of Osler as a godlike surrogate father was harmful to the library during his tenure and makes its early history difficult to celebrate without qualifications.

One wishes that Sir William Osler: The Man and His Books contained more insight about Sir William as a bibliophile and more qualifications about Francis's oslerolatry and librarianship. Still, the book does introduce readers to the riches and variety in the holdings of a very fine and important institution. The volume is among the most handsome of the Osler Library's extensive and good series of publications in the history of medicine. On balance, Osler would probably be pleased with his stewards' handiwork.

Michael Bliss, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto