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William Feindel, Elizabeth Maloney, and Pamela Miller, eds. Sir William Osler: The Man and His Books.

William Feindel, Elizabeth Maloney, and Pamela Miller, eds. Sir William Osler: The Man and His Books. Montreal: Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University, 2011. 143 pp.; $25.00 ISBN 9780771707094

Reflecting upon the title of this celebratory collection of essays and documents on Sir William Osler's remarkable career, character, and collections, I would offer Sir William Osler: Great Bookman as a possible alternate title. Besides his bibliographic monument The Bibliotheca Osleriania, Sir William Osler (1849-1919) also made unprecedented contributions to the fields of medicine, pedagogy, philanthropy, book collecting, and librarianship. At the time of his death in 1919, Osler was regarded as the greatest living physician in the world. His medicai textbook The Principles and Practice of Medicine (1897.) modernized medicai knowledge and teaching practice. While he continued to revise his textbook seeing it through numerous editions till the end of his career, which spanned forty-five years, during the last two decades of his life he shifted his focus from medicine to book collecting, publishing numerous articles on the subject.

Today, Osler's books, memory, and achievements are celebrated on a global scale. While Toronto, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Oxford rightly lay claim to a portion of Osler's legacy, Montreal, specifically McGill University, serves as the pre-eminent memorial and home to Osler's greatest gifts, his remains, and his library. The Osler collection documents the evolution of scientific thought and medical history from the sixth century BCE to the end of the nineteenth century and has long been regarded as one of the great history-of-medicine collections in the world.

Although Osler willed his collection to McGill in 1911, it would take almost a decade after his death to fulfill his wish to complete the cataloguing of his library before its delivery to McGill. Osler had started cataloguing his collection but was unable to complete the task. In 1929, the long-awaited library of 7800 volumes arrived at McGill University and was installed in a room especially designed to house the Osler collection in the Faculty of Medicine. The Osler Library was moved in toto to its current location in 1965, and in 2002, a generous gift from a wealthy Oslerian funded the renovation of the stacks in the McIntyre Medical Building, allowing the library to be housed in a climate-controlled environment that will ensure that the collection is preserved long into the future.

For over a century Osler has been subject to a cult among medical practitioners who, as students, are introduced to Osler's inspirational essays published in Aequanimitas: With Other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses and Practitianers of Medicine. (The first edition appeared in 1909 and it has been reprinted in many subsequent editions.) Bibliophiles and book historians equally esteem Osler, who ranks among the elite book collectors who emerged during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Despite limited resources, Osler skilfully purchased medical and scientific works that were arguably undervalued and would have otherwise been beyond his grasp.

Published under the auspices of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, this collection of essays pays tribute to Osler, and the book's editors, William Feindel, Elizabeth Maloney, and Pamela Miller, are to be congratulated for celebrating Osler's character and his library. As the editors note, over the course of the history of the Osler Library the collection has grown and evolved, especially during the past fifty years. To the credit of the library staff, they have actively promoted the Osler Library through the venues of the Osler Library Newsletter (1969--) and occasional publications including the recent 75 Books From the Osler Library (2004) that was edited by former Osler Librarians Pamela Miller and Faith Wallis. The Osler Library website also brims with information including ordering information for Sir William Osler: The Man and His Books.

Fittingly, the first essay in this new collection, on the Osler niche, sets the tone for the essays to follow. William Feindel and Wayne LeBel explain the history of the niche, which Osler's widow, Grace Revere Osler, engaged Montreal architect Percy Nobbs to design in 1921 as the centrepiece of the Osler Library. The niche houses the remains of Osler, his wife Grace, and Osler's bibliographer, W.W. "Bill" Francis, Osler's cousin. In the niche, the works of Osler's two favourite authors, Sir Thomas Browne and Sir Robert Burton, flank his ashes. Indeed, Osler's cherished copy of Browne's Religio Medici (Boston, 1862) lay atop his casket while it lay in state in his Oxford home.

Following Feindel and LeBel's contribution, there are three essays that focus on different aspects of the contents of the Osler Collection: Adam Gaceck examines notable Arabic and Persians manuscripts in the collection, Toby Gelfand discusses French inaugural medical theses dating from the nineteenth century and purchased en bloc by Osler, and Pamela Miller describes the contents of the archives and the artefacts found within. The other essays of note, contributed by Peter McNally, Glen Brown, and Nicolas Savard, provide an in-depth study of the origins of Osler's idiosyncratic classification scheme, which serves as the basis upon which the Bibliotehca is organized. The authors also narrate the seven-year ordeal to complete Osler's catalogue, which proves to be a lesson in personality, perfectionism, and perseverance.

Apart from his love of books and collecting, Osler loved libraries. During his tenure as the Regius Professorship of Medicine at Oxford from 1911 to 1919, he cherished his duty serving as the Curator of the Bodleian Library. During his lifetime, he was also associated with more than forty libraries, many of which benefited from his generosity as a donor. Frances Groen contributes the final essay in the volume. It describes how his love of libraries and books led to his active role in the founding of the Medical Library Association.

It is unfortunate that the editors did not include separate chapters on the incunabula--one of the prized components of the Osler Library--or the Western medical manuscripts. Given the eminence of the collection, the erudition contained in the Bibliotecha, and the wealth of surviving correspondence, documents, and published research, it is my hope that Osler will find a future scholar who will write the definitive biblio-biography of Sir William Osler, bibliophile and collector nonpareil.


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Author:McKnight, David
Publication:Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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