In the first of this series, I noted that the beloved William Osler, teacher, writer, philosopher of medicine, had little to say about military medicine in his years at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins.
This changed when Osler, a Canadian citizen, moved to Oxford as the Regius Professor of Medicine in 1905. Always a bibliophile, he began to avidly collect medical antiquities, and he may have dusted off his Latina and perhaps his Greek reading skills. As a result of his collecting and reading, he seems to have become more aware of the role of military doctors in the history of medicine. Among the antiquities, for instance, he cited Dioscorides, an army surgeon in Nero’s time as one of the first “scientific” students of pharmacology. (1)
In 1909, Osler reflected his study of more recent medical history when he mentioned the work of British Royal Navy scurvy pioneer James Lind, and malaria researcher Vandyke Carter of the British Indian Medical Service to highlight their individual contributions to the advancement of medical knowledge.(2)
Up to this point, Osler’s outlook emphasized the work of individuals in their quest to advance medical science. Gradually, however, he began to express appreciation for the importance of military medical organizations, in what we would today call public health initiatives. Already, in a 1901 essay Medicine in the Nineteenth Century, he had cited the success of the German army in eliminating smallpox from its ranks by vaccination (3). In 1909, he noted the key role of a military organization in eliminating endemic tropical diseases thus:
It was a fortunate thing that the head of the American occupation of Cuba was General Leonard Wood, himself a well-trained physician, and deeply interested in problems of sanitation. Backed by the military arm it took Dr Gorgas and his colleagues nine months to clear Havana, which had been for centuries a strong hold of [yellow fever].(4)
In 1914, with the outbreak of the Great War, Osler put on the uniform of an Honorary Colonel in the Oxfordshire Regiment, and by August, he was advocating for compulsory vaccination of British troops
against typhoid fever. In a letter he prepared for The Times of London late in the month, he cited “the work of French army doctors and of British army surgeons, particularly in India” for “the remarkable reduction in the incidence of typhoid when vaccination is carried out”. In the same letter he wrote “[the] experience of the American Army is of special value, as the disease is so much more prevalent in the United States…” (5) In October, he again cited the success of armies (German, French, American) in virtually eliminating the disease by vaccination. (6)
I’ll conclude this consideration of Sir William Osler’s thoughts on military medicine in my next post.
(1) Cushing, Harvey, The Life of Sir William Olser, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1925, vol ii, p 122, quotes an Osler letter in which he detailed his exploration of the Vienna Hofbibliothek, where he had a chance to see a fifth Century Dioscordian manuscript; he described this as “one of the great treasures of the library”.
(2) Osler, William, The Nation and the Tropics, an address at the London School of Tropical Medicine, quoted by Cushing, vol ii, pp 192-194, and published in the Lancet, 1909, vol 2, pp 1401-6.
(3) See Osler’s volume Aequinimitas, with Other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses and Medical Practitioners, available in several printings and editions. The 1905 edition (Blakiston, Philadelphia) cites the elimination of smallpox in the German army by a program of “efficient revaccination”, pp 251-252.
(4) The Nation and the Tropics, cited above.
(5) Letter to The Times is quoted by Cushing, vol ii, p. 427
(6) Osler, William, Bacilli and Bullets, an address to the Officers and Men in the Camps at Chum. I originally found this in the Osler Library in McGill University, in a volume “The Collected Essays of Sir William Osler” by John P McGovern and Charles G Roland, Editors, The Classics of Medicine Library, Birmingham (Alabama), 1985. This is now available on line: http://archive.org/stream/bacilliandbullet031212mbp#page/n9/mode/2up, accessed 19 October 2012.
©2012 Thomas L Snyder