William Osler and Walt Whitman

On this page: Walt Whitman | William Osler


Walt Whitman, 1887, and William Osler, 1881. - Library of Congress and McCord Museum

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in Long Island, New York. He worked as a teacher and for a variety of newspapers until he decided to dedicate his life to poetry. His defining work, Leaves of Grass, was published in 1855 and underwent several revisions over the years until his death in 1892.

Whitman was 42 years-old and living in New York City at the onset of the Civil War. When he learned that his brother had been injured at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, he traveled to Virginia to care for him. His journey exposed him to the battlefield and its dead and wounded. He decided to move to Washington, D. C. to volunteer as a dresser of wounds and to spend time with soldiers during their convalescence in hospital wards throughout the city. Although he was a sympathizer of the Union cause and wrote several patriotic poems in its favor, his experience with the random carnage of the war tempered his views.

As might be expected, Whitman's wartime experience affected him deeply and he wrote a number of poems as testimony. These were published in two sequences entitled “Drum-Taps” and “Memories of President Lincoln”, both eventually incorporated into Leaves of Grass

Listen to selected readings of Walt Whitman's Civil War era poetry in Leaves of Grass:

William Osler

William Osler at the Blockley Mortuary, c. 1886.

William Osler was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1849. Although his initial professional goal was to be an Anglican minister, he eventually decided to study medicine, first at the University of Toronto and later at McGill University in Montreal. Following his graduation from the latter in 1872, he spent some time travelling and studying in Europe. He returned to McGill in 1874 as Professor of Medicine. In addition to his clinical duties, he acted as pathologist at the Montreal General Hospital, an experience which gave him the opportunity to collect specimens of a variety of diseased organs for teaching and publication. Many of these specimens remained in the Museum when it was taken over by Maude Abbott in 1899.

Osler's professional life took him to Philadelphia in 1884 (as Chair of Clinical Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania), Baltimore in 1889 (Physician in Chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital) and Oxford, England, in 1905 (Regius Chair of Medicine). He remained in England until his death in 1919.

Osler's professional accomplishments were many and he became one of the most respected physicians of the 20th century. His fame derived in part from the warmth and strength of his personality: he was revered by many individuals, both patients and colleagues. He also had an important influence on medical education, particularly with respect to bedside teaching and ensuring that medical students learn from patients as well as textbooks and university lectures.

Entrance to the Bibliotheca Osleriana in the McGill McIntyre Medical Building.

Osler was also a bibliophile with an eclectic taste. At the time of his death, he had amassed a collection of approximately 8,000 volumes which he bequeathed to McGill University, where it now resides in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine. The Library was designed by Percy Nobbs and officially opened in McGill's Strathcona Medical Building in 1929. In 1965, it moved to its present location in the McIntyre Medical building.

Osler first met Whitman in 1885 at the request of Dr. Richard Bucke and saw him professionally a number of times in 1888 after Whitman had suffered what appeared to be one or more small strokes. The style of Whitman’s poetry did not appeal to Osler at first. After reading Leaves of Grass for the first time, he recalled:

"Whether the meat was too strong, or whether it was the style of cooking - 'twas not for my pampered palate, accustomed to Plato and Shakespeare and Shelly and Keats."

Opening pages of Osler's 'Anniversary Address'.

Despite this initial impression, Osler appeared to appreciate the poetry more in his later years and certainly admired Whitman. In fact, he intended to give a lecture on him in 1919. A draft of this talk, which he was unable to give because of ill health, resides at the Osler Library.

" ...Whitman was a fine figure of a man who had aged beautifully, or more properly speaking, majestically, with a large frame and well-shaped, well-poised head, covered with a profusion of snow-white hair... "
from "Walt Whitman: An Anniversary Address"

Additional Reading

  • Leon, Philip W. Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and his Physician. ECW Press, 1995.

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