Traditions & Culture of Collecting Articles by and about Collectors, Librarians, and Booksellers
The Gay of Heart Thomas S. Cullen, M.D.
Reprinted from Archives of Internal Medicine, 1949, Vol. 84, 41-45. Chicago: American Medical Association.
Why is it that Dr. Osler—as he will always be to those of us who worked with him at the Johns Hopkins Hospital—remains in our minds so vividly and everlastingly? Random memories come to me when I think of him on his birthday. Trivial and inconsequential as they are, they emphasize two of his most striking attributes: his gaiety of heart and his friendliness.
I came to live in the southern half of the third floor of the main building of the Johns Hopkins Hospital one day in January 1892. Promptly at 10 P.M. I heard a pair of boots dropped outside the door at the end of the hall, and at 7 o’clock the next morning I heard someone pitter-pattering past my room. At 7:30 the same person was standing in front of the dining-room on the ground floor, waiting for breakfast to be served. The patterer was William Osler, and that was how I first became acquainted with him. We were friends ever afterwards.
Shortly after the hospital opened, the tradition had been established of holding a meeting of the medical society on one evening of each month. There, unusual and interesting cases were described, after which they were discussed by one or more of the Big Four—Osler, Welch, Kelly and Halsted. Dr. Henry Hurd, the superintendent of the hospital, recorded in detail what was said at these meetings, and in this way he began to develop the Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital into an excellent mirror to reflect what those associated with the institution were doing. It was he who carefully transcribed many of the most interesting and colorful sayings of Dr. Osler and the others, which otherwise might have been lost.
Occasionally the clinical program gave way to meetings of the historical society, at which old and rare medical books or pamphlets were displayed. Osler, Welch and Kelly gave the younger members delightfully memorable evenings, bringing medical history alive and weaving into the pattern bits of early literature or old tales of physicians, so that we learned to realize, with proper humility, as we took our place in medicine, that we were marching along as privates in an unending procession behind great leaders.
One night, when Dr. Osler was returning by train to Baltimore from Toronto, Canada, the conductor called for a physician. Dr. Osler was the only one on board; he delivered a baby in the baggage car and looked after the mother and infant on a makeshift pallet there. I have often thought that he would have made a wonderful general practitioner.
That the Big Four were fond of one another was evident in their personal relations and in their correspondence. Dr. Osler’s sense of humor, however, was now and then to prove an embarrassment to his friends. He was capable of almost any outrage.
One day he came to the hospital and, perhaps mischievously hoping to stir up a hospital romance, went to the telephone desk and asked for the surgical operating room. When Miss Lucy Sharp, the head nurse, answered, Dr. Osler said, “This is Dr. Cullen speaking. Please get ready at once for an emergency operation,” and hung up.
Miss Sharp was mystified. She was friendly with the staff of the gynecologic department, of which I was a member, but the surgical operating room belonged to the department of general surgery, and she knew that I had nothing to do with it. It took fully half an hour before she found out that the telephone message was no more than another oslerian hoax and that there was no patient requiring an emergency operation.
Occasionally Osler got into trouble. One morning he was making rounds in ward C, with his usual retinue of assistants and nurses, when a student nurse appeared with a heavy wooden tray, on which was a bowl of soup covered with a napkin. Dr. Osler walked over and pushed the napkin down into the soup with his finger. The little nurse—who had copper-colored hair and was pretty and very earnest—stopped short, looked him squarely in the face, reddened and said, “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care, but you’re the meanest man I ever saw!”
Dr. Osler left the ward like a dog with his tail between his legs and went home as fast as he could. He sent Mrs. Osler right back to the hospital with the most contrite note of apology he could compose.
I suspect that his peculiar mixture of foolishness and thoughtfulness of others was one of the reasons he was so dearly beloved. One never knew what he might do or say, but one could be sure that it would be original, gay and graceful. Max Brodel depicted something of this trait in his famous cartoon of Osler which he drew in 1896. The likeness of Dr. Osler’s head is excellent. Brodel has crowned it with a subdued halo and added a minute pair of wings and baby toes to the body—emphasizing, I assume, the oslerian childishness, which at times was so cherubic. The outline of the Johns Hopkins Hospital is clearly visible in the background, and a cyclone, which, since he had started it, merely supports the carefree Osler, is about to hit the side of the building. In the foreground, amebas, malarial parasites, staphylococci and streptococci are retreating from the whirlwind as fast as they can; only the typhoid bacilli are undaunted. They fear neither Dr. Osler nor the storm but stand firmly upright and unmoved.
For a long time before Osler saw the picture, he had been addressing envelopes to me at “The Saint-Johns Hopkins.” When Brodel saw them, he decided to label the cartoon with the same name, and so it has been known ever since. The original drawing hangs in my office; I value it highly.
Dr. Welch and Dr. Osler got a great deal of fun out of devising new ways of pulling each other’s legs. I remember several of their pranks, which delighted the students at the time they were perpetrated.
Dr. Welch was riding one day on the back platform of the Monument Street car, on his way to the hospital from St. Paul Street; with him was a group of very dignified physicians. Dr. Osler was walking west on Monument Street when he saw them. With a great flourish, he took off his hat and threw Dr. Welch a loud and extravagant kiss. It tickled the fancy of his companions, but Dr. Welch himself blushed fiery red.
All Baltimore chuckled for months over Dr. Osler’s call on Dr. Welch at his rooms across town. Dr. Osler rang the front doorbell and asked if Dr. Welch were at home; he was not. Then Dr. Osler asked how Mrs. Welch and the children were. The lady of the house, who claimed to be an authority on the intimate ramifications of social life in Maryland, said that Dr. Welch was not married, and that he had no children. Dr. Osler, as he left, looked dubious, shook his head and announced sorrowfully, “I am afraid that you are mistaken.”
Dr. Welch retaliated later when Dr. Osler was working on his textbook. Dr. Osler called on Dr. Welch and found him looking over a German medical periodical. Dr. Welch said, “Listen to this, Osler; it may interest you,” and proceeded to read aloud a description of a rare and peculiar aneurysm. Dr. Osler was much excited; “Wait a minute,” he said; then he pulled out pad and pencil and began to copy every word that Dr. Welch said. When the description of the case was complete, Dr. Welch began to describe a second case; this, too, Dr. Osler copied. Presently Dr. Welch began to laugh, for he had improvised the reports on the spur of the moment, entirely for Dr. Osler’s edification.
It may seem odd that insignificant memories of Dr. Osler, such as these, should stay fresh in my mind for so many years, and that I should venture to write about them now in memory of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Yet I have done so deliberately, because I feel that his minor peculiarities and idiosyncrasies accounted in large measure for his charm.
I claim that what he wrote while in our midst, in beautiful English as his writings always were, does not represent his greatest accomplishment. I believe that with his way of life, his personality, his ideals, his gaiety and kindliness, he welded the medical profession of Maryland, and of the entire country, so that brotherly love became its dominant note. That, in my opinion, was William Osler’s finest and most enduring contribution to American medicine.
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