In the introduction to the Bibliotheca Osleriana, the catalogue raisonné of his collection, Sir William Osler (1849–1919) wrote that “a library represents the mind of its collector, his fancies and foibles, his strength and weakness, his prejudices and preferences.” One of the best known doctors in the English-speaking world in his day, Osler’s fame rested not only on his medical work, but also upon his deep understanding of the history of his profession. At the centre of this engagement was his library of close to eight thousand items in the history of medicine and science. Osler described it as a means of understanding “the lives of the great men of the profession . . . to be in sympathetic touch with those friends of the spirit, the great and good men of the past who, through much tribulation, handed on the torch to our generation.”
Collecting at a time when many books were more accessible and affordable than today, Osler was able to amass an impressive assemblage, which he bequeathed to his alma mater at his death. He organized his collection into eight sections. The Bibliotheca Prima consisted of works by and about those whom he considered to be most important in the history of medicine and science. Editions of the classical works attributed to Hippocrates (460–375 BCE), Aristotle (384–322 BCE), and Galen (130–200 CE), published during the first centuries of print by the Aldine Press and others, were joined by several medieval manuscripts from Europe and the Middle East. Scientific works from the Renaissance and modern periods are represented by significant publications such as Copernicus’s presentation of the heliocentric solar system, de Revolutionibus Orbium.
Other sections of the Bibliotheca contain literary works related to medicine, including an extensive collection of works by Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682), Osler’s favourite author, as well as by François Rabelais (1490–1553?) and Robert Burton (1577–1640). Osler considered Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to be the greatest medical treatise written by a layman. There are in addition historical writings, biography, bibliographies, incunables not listed in the Bibliotheca Prima, and manuscripts. The collection also contains Osler’s own publications as well as a variety of his manuscript material, including a sketchbook from his student days at McGill.
A digitised version of the Bibliotheca Osleriana, is freely available.
Several collections offer related holdings. For example, Osler’s bibliophilia, manifest in his library, is documented in archival holdings of Osler’s letters and book bills in the Sir William Osler Collection* and in the Harvey Cushing Fonds. One can study other thematic collections created by McGill bibliophiles, including the Frank Dawson Adams geological collection and the Lawrence Lande Collection of Canadiana. Osler’s interest in melancholy, and in early books generally, was shared by Raymond Klibansky, a major user of Osler’s collection, and overlapping interests can be noticed through comparison with the Raymond Klibansky Collection. And finally, the primary medical and scientific material collected by Osler is complemented by the rich scientific holdings in the general collections of the Osler Library and in Rare Books and Special Collections.