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Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine, made openly racist statements — and it’s time to stop celebrating him, medical journal article says

Sir William Osler, the Canadian doctor widely regarded as the father of modern medicine, whose name graces schools and medical institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, held racist views that have been swept under the carpet for more than a century, according to an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal Monday.

The article, co-authored by Toronto doctor Nav Persaud, argues that Osler continues to be lionized in medical school, a practice that whitewashes his legacy and erases his more offensive statements, which include “I hate Latin Americans,” and “What are we to do when the yellow and brown men begin to swarm over” to Canada, which he considered “a White man’s country.”

“William Osler continues to be held up as an example physicians should follow,” the article states. “As statues of once-revered individuals who participated in racist crimes are being removed around the world, we should change Osler’s place in medical curricula and explicitly address racism in medicine.”

Osler’s outsized presence in medical schools across the English speaking world overshadows the contributions made by lesser-known racialized physicians who practiced during the same era, including Black Civil War veterans Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta and Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott, as well as Indigenous physicians Dr. Oronhyatekha (Burning Sky) and Dr. Peter Edmund Jones.

No hospitals are named after these doctors.

The CMAJ article states that a biographer modified a transcription of an Osler letter, replacing his use of the word “hate” for Latin Americans with “don’t care for.” The statement was ultimately not included in the 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the doctor. The CMAJ article includes an undated illustration that depicts the doctor as an angel, complete with halo and wings, floating above Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, which he helped found.

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