Who’s Reading over Your Shoulder?









Do you hate the feeling of someone reading over your shoulder? Does it affect how you respond to the text? Do you feel judged based on the book in your hand? The student sitting next to you isn’t a big deal, but the thought of someone like William Osler peering over your shoulder definitely could put an edge on things. The Anatomy Reading Room, just before the entrance to the Maude Abbott Medical Museum on the second floor of the Strathcona Anatomy and Dentistry Building, houses a number of busts and portraits of eminent men that peer over the shoulders of the students sitting at the long oak tables. Who are these men?

Blog written by Sean Goldfarb, November 2017.

Sir William Osler, Baronet (July 12, 1849-December 29, 1919)

Osler was born in 1849 and obtained his medical degree at McGill. He was a world-renowned physician and professor who taught in Canada, Great Britain and the United States. Osler was among those who founded John Hopkins University’s medical school. At John Hopkins and elsewhere, he revolutionised medical education with the championing of patient-centered teaching. Believe it or not, he was a famous practical joker, writing bogus medical articles for respected journals under the pseudonym Egerton Yorrick Davis. Throughout his career, he wrote several books, including The Principles and Practice of Medicine, which became the gold-standard medical textbook of its day. Additionally, several of his lectures were published, such as Aequanimitas. Osler’s name has been immortalised in medical terminology: Osler’s nodes, Osler-Vaquez disease and Osler-Rendu-Weber disease. Osler was also a bibliophile, owning a large collection of books on various subjects. Upon his death in 1919, he conferred his library to McGill, where to this day it remains intact, named the Osler Library History of Medicine. There are many of his works and published lectures in the Osler Library, such as Aequanimitas and several editions of The Principles and Practice of Medicine, even including a microfilm of the first edition. You may even find some works of the infamous “Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis”.

Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 375 BCE)










Hippocrates was a Greek physician who lived during the Classical period of Greece’s history; he was thought to be a descendant of the demi-god Asclepius. Little is known about Hippocrates, since most things related to him are intermingled in myth and legends. He is usually considered to be the father of (modern, western) medicine and he is one of, if not the best well-known figures in medical history. He made an indelible mark on medical practice and is accredited with writing various texts known as the Hippocratic Corpus. His most famous writing is the Hippocratic Oath, which details medical ethics. Even if many of the tenets of the Oath are no longer followed, graduating medical-school students still swear to some form of the Oath (incidentally, at the turn of the twentieth century, few medical schools recited the Oath).

The Hippocratic Corpus outlines his philosophies of medical practice. Hippocrates separated mysticism from medicine and was more in favour of observation than a priori arguments, and preferred to observe and ask his patients many questions to elucidate the disease. His method would eventually come to dominate modern clinical practice. Hippocrates was a strong proponent of using dietetics to treat disease (restoring balance to the body). His teaching became the basis for the humoral theory of disease which would inform medicine for the next 2000 years until scientific inquiry would come to dominate medicine.











In ancient Greek and Roman mythology Asclepius was a demi-god of medicine. According to the legend, he was the son of Apollo and a human princess named Koronis. He was taught the healing arts by Chiron, a centaur. Zeus ultimately executed Asclepius by lightning, fearful that he may have made humans immortal. However, Homer in the Iliad merely refers to him as a physician that sired two children. He is often considered to be a direct ancestor of Hippocrates, although some believe he was merely Hippocrates’ mentor.

He was worshipped by the ancient Greeks as a healer. In sanctuaries which bore his name, events were held in his name and worshippers prayed to him so that he may present cures for their ills.

Asclepius is perhaps most well-known for the art depicting him with the staff of Asclepius, around which the serpent of eternal life coils. This staff is the symbol for medicine. However, it is often confused with the caduceus. The caduceus is also a staff but it is often winged and has two snakes coiling around it. This staff belongs to Hermes, god of messengers, merchants, thieves, etc. It is believed that Asclepius’ rod originates from the removal of dermal parasitic worms by incising the skin and winding the worm around a rod or stick. This treatment was so common that the healers of that day and age would even advertise their practice with the rod and worm, hence its association with medicine.

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