As I’ve said before, one of many things about Whitman that I love most is the enrichment of the mind born out of studying him, his life and the historic events and people around him in his time. And what a truly historic person I have to share today! But first, please join me in a huge round of applause to my dear friend Ed (a fellow collector of Whitman for some 20+ years!) for the gift of this book; Walt Whitman and Sir William Olser: A Poet and His Physician, by Philip W. Leon.
For the epigraph of the book the author selects two crowning quotes; one from William Osler and the other from Walt Whitman. In these quotes, we see the genius in each of these two men as they write about one another:
William Osler on Walt Whitman:
In his 65th year, Walt Whitman was a fine figure of a man who had aged beautifully, or more properly speaking, majestically…I knew nothing of Walt Whitman and had never read a line of his poems – a Scythian visitor at Delphi!
– William Osler, 1919
Walt Whitman on William Osler:
As for Olser: he is a great man – one of the rare men. I should be much surprised if he didn’t soar way, way up – get very famous at his trade – someday. He has the air of something about him – of achievement.
– Walt Whitman, 26 December 1888
Many people, including myself, believe Whitman to be a prophet and this should not be surprising given how right he was about William Osler.
In the late 1800’s, Dr. Osler was already a rising star at McGill University in Montreal and was quickly becoming a prominent Canadian physician. Dr. Osler moved from Montreal to Philadelphia in 1884 at the request of renowned physician Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, where he lived and worked for the next five years. At the urging of his friend and colleague Dr. Maurice Bucke; Dr. Olser crossed the river from Philadelphia to Camden, NJ to offer his assessment of this ailing patient named Walt Whitman. After visiting Whitman, Dr. Osler reported to Dr. Bucke, “After a careful examination, [Dr. Bucke] seemed pleased that I was able to tell him, the machine was in fairly good condition considering the length of time it has been on the road.” (23). Dr. Osler tended to Whitman for the next five years before moving to Baltimore to found the medical school at Johns Hopkins University.
Dr. Osler is still studied and revered by the medical community, the world over, and is widely considered to be the “Father of Modern Medicine.” In fact, in 1919 as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, Dr. Osler was the “most famous doctor in the world.” This same year 1919, Dr. Osler wrote his Reminiscences about his relationship with Walt Whitman some thirty years earlier. Unfortunately he died that same year and his manuscript was never published. This book by Philip W. Leon is the first intact publication of Dr. Osler’s Reminiscences, a full 76 years after it was written.
This book is an important historical document about two extraordinary people. I can’t help but to suggest an alternate title for this book: Two Brilliant Men: The Father of Modern Medicine meets The Father of Free Verse.
While their backgrounds differ in significant respects, Whitman and Osler had common interests in literature and medicine. Whitman had a lifelong fascination with medicine, even serving as a wound dresser to injured soldiers on both sides of the conflict during the Civil War. Osler read widely among the best classical poets, and amassed an impressive personal library of rare editions. Both men exuded personal warmth and attracted disciples who worshipped their masters not only for their accomplishments in their professions but also for themselves and the quality of their lives. Books and articles about both men proliferate, and each of them has achieved a measure of immortality through this scholarly attention, which has continued through to the present. There is a Walt Whitman Association and there are Osler societies worldwide; these groups keep alive the memories of their exemplars.