Friday, April 13, 2007

Osler on nurses

As I mentioned a while ago, my current rotation, bringing the fourth year to a gradual, relaxed close, is medical history. I've been reading about Sir William Osler primarily. Osler is probably the most famous clinician of the modern age, and eventually, almost any medical professor will quote him. I am reading about him for that purpose, because despite his fame, I knew nothing about the man before arriving here, and my knowledge was still limited to the quotes heading the various dull sets of PowerPoint slides I've suffered through. When I actually finish slogging through Harvey Cushing's 1200 page biography, I'll write something about that, but since it's been quite some time since I posted anything, I thought I'd put something up.

Osler, I have learned, was a remarkably widely interested and learned man. While a professor at McGill medical school in Canada, he also managed to maintain a professorship in the veterinary school across town, conducting basic research and publishing in both fields, all the while maintaining an amateur interest in microscopic freshwater animals, travelling extensively, and nearly singlehandedly sustaining several professional organizations. (though my source of information is Cushing's biography, which is rather more hagiography at points it seems.) So it is probably unsurprising that a man of such parts should give a graduation address to a nursing school. In a collection of essays I'm also reading, I found the follow example of eloquence which will doubtless be appreciated by the nurse readers here. It may bear mentioning that this address was given in 1891.
If, Members of the Graduating Class, the medical profession, composed chiefly of men, has absorbed a larger share of attention and regard, you have, at least, the satisfaction of feeling that yours is the older, and, as older, the more honourable calling. In one of the lost books of Solomon, a touching picture is given of Eve, then an early grandmother, bending over the little Enoch, and showing Mahala how to soothe his sufferings and to allay his pains...

In the gradual division of labour, by which civilization has emerged from barbarism, the doctor and the nurse have been evolved, as useful accessories in the incessant warfare in which man is engaged. The history of the race is a grim record of passions and ambitions, of weaknesses and vanities, a record, too often, of barbaric in-humanity, and even to-day, when philosophers would have us believe his thoughts had widened, he is ready as of old to shut the gates of mercy, and to let loose the dogs of war. It was in one of these attacks of race-mania that your profession, until then unsettled and ill-defined, took, under Florence Nightingale—ever blessed be her name—its modern position.

The entirety of the address is singularly quotable, which is probably why Osler is so often quoted, but if you are interested in reading the rest of what he said, the full text is here.

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