The satirical side of William Osler, M.D.

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

 

Cartoon of William Osler as a cherub in charge of a cyclone banishing all disease from Johns Hopkins Hospital. Drawing by Max Brodel, a medical illustrator at the hospital, 1896. National Library of Medicine. Public domain.

“But whatever you do, take neither yourself nor your fellow creatures too seriously.”1
– William Osler, MD

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest…”
– Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in Hamlet, Act V Scene I, by William Shakespeare

 

William Osler, MD (1849–1919), called “the father of modern medicine,”2 was born in rural Ontario, Canada. He earned his medical degree at the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in 1872. He had postgraduate training in Germany with Rudolf Virchow and then became a professor at McGill in 1874. In 1884, at age thirty-five, he was appointed professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.3 He was “the first person offered a professorship at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine” in Baltimore, Maryland,4 which opened in 1893.

In 1892, he published Principles and Practice of Medicine, a book that went into sixteen editions, the last published in 1947. He was the most famous doctor in the world,5 and wrote medical essays, including the well-known Aequinimitas. In 1905, he became the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, a chair founded by Henry VIII in 1546 and held by Osler for the rest of his life.

This brilliant and humane clinician, teacher, and researcher also had a humorous side. A bit of “Jekyll and Hyde” was in his personality. He created an alter ego, Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis, a retired US Army surgeon from Caughnawauga, Quebec, who published strange medical articles. In 1882, “Davis” wrote “Professional Notes Among the Indian Tribes About Great Slave Lake, NWT” (Northwest Territories). In this completely fictitious article,6,7 he described how the penises of young First Nations men were examined for defects in order to see if the men were fit for reproduction. If there were defects, they were excluded from the gene pool. If they passed the inspection, the glans penis was branded or cauterized, to inhibit “excessive intercourse.” Women in labor had vaginal examinations performed by a from the gene pool. If they passed the inspection, the glans penis was branded or cauterized, to inhibit “excessive intercourse.” Women in labor had vaginal examinations performed by a midwife and eight or nine assistants (something Osler saw in European university hospital clinics), and when the infant’s head was visible, the woman was hung with her feet not touching the ground until the baby was delivered. After this, the family and friends would eat the placenta.

For some, this article was an example of racism toward First Nations’ people. Osler’s defenders maintained that this article was written to show the gullibility of medical readers. It is interesting to observe that a century after this satire, the eating of placentas is encouraged by some “alternate health” advocates. The tissue is either cooked and eaten or freeze-dried, pulverized, and put into capsules for ingestion. The ingestion of placenta has not been shown to have any effect on maternal mood, fatigue, or mother-infant bonding. Only a few isolated human societies eat placenta. Most mammal mothers eat their placentas, with the exception of humans, camels, cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and pinnipeds (seals and walrus).8,9 A recipe for placenta stew may be found on the Wikibooks Cookbook subproject.

The best-known Davis/Osler article was entitled “Vaginismus.”10 It describes a couple who had intercourse in Pentonville, England. The woman’s vaginal muscles clamped down firmly and the penis could not be withdrawn, regardless of its erection status. The couple could not separate (cohesione in coitu), despite Dr. Davis’ application of water or ice. He gave the woman “a few whiffs” of chloroform, which caused her to fall asleep, “relaxing the spasm and releasing the captive penis. This is the first mention of penis captivus in the medical literature.”

This hoax was perpetrated in response to a “presumptuous editorial” in the Philadelphia Medical News by Dr. Theophilus Parvin, chair of obstetrics at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Parvin described vaginismus, the “grasping vagina,” and the “captive human penis.”11,12 Davis placed the case in Pentonville, England, the site of the first modern prison in the London area, “a fitting location for a case of penile incarceration,”13 according to an anonymous author.

In 1886, Davis wrote a commentary ridiculing a claim that the application of electricity could convert an ectopic (tubal) pregnancy into a normal intrauterine pregnancy.14 In a different, fanciful note, he suggested that the application of electricity to the throat might be used to treat patients with globus hystericus, a known psychogenic malady that produces the sensation of a lump in the throat.15,16

It has been suggested that Osler’s use of the name “Edgerton” came from Egerton Ryerson, the founder of the Ontario school system, and “Davis” from Nathan Smith Davis, the founder of the American Medical Association.17 Egerton Y. Davis “died” in 1884 in the Lachine Rapids in the St. Lawrence River, Quebec, Canada.18 Osler never admitted that Davis did not exist.19

 

References

  1. William Osler. “The reserves of life,” St. Mary’s Hospital Gazette, 13, 1907.
  2. Howard Herrell. “Penis captivus and the cult of personality in medicine,” howardisms, July 31, 2016. https://howardisms.com/evidence-based-medicine/penis-captivus-and-the-cult-of-personality-in-medicine/.
  3. Sherwin Nuland. Doctors: The Illustrated History of Medical Pioneers, New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 1988.
  4. George Burden. “Who was Egerton Yorrick Davis?” Life as a Human, October 10, 2012. https://lifeasahuman.com/2012/humor/who-was-egerton-yorrick-davis/.
  5. Nuland, Doctors.
  6. Burden, “Who was.”
  7. Michael Bliss. William Osler: A Life in Medicine, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  8. “Human placentophagy.” Wikipedia.
  9. Howard Herrell. “No, you shouldn’t eat your placenta,” howardisms, September 14, 2018. https://howardisms.com/obgyn/no-you-shouldnt-eat-your-placenta/.
  10. Egerton Davis. “Vaginismus,” Philadelphia Medical News, December 13, 1884.
  11. Chris Nickson. “Egerton Y. Davis,” Life in the Fastlane, September 14, 2019. https://litfl.com/egerton-y-davis/.
  12. Robert Taylor. White Coat Tales, New York: Springer Science Business Media, 2008.
  13. “Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis,” Museum of Hoaxes. http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/dr._egerton_yorrick_davis.
  14. Bliss, William Osler.
  15. Bliss, William Osler.
  16. Burden, “Who was.”
  17. Burden, “Who was.”
  18. Nickson, “Egerton Y. Davis.”
  19. Herrell, “Penis captivus.”

 


 

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

 

Winter 2023  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note