Osler, William

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Feb-03-1997


Osler’s famous essay was first delivered as a valedictory address at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1889. Osler urges the graduates to develop two qualities or virtues. First is the "bodily" virtue of imperturbability or "a judicious measure of obtuseness." This means the outward expression of calmness and coolness, even under difficult circumstances. This virtue suggests that physicians should be relatively "insensible" to the slings-and-arrows of patient care, always maintaining a degree of detachment from their patients.

The complementary "mental" virtue is aequanimitas, which is the personal quality of calmly accepting whatever comes in life. These virtues, however, should not lead to "hardness" in dealing with patients. Osler also urges his students and colleagues to develop the other gentlemanly virtues of courage, patience, and honor.


Like many canonic texts, this essay admits to various interpretations. Osler seems to be promoting detachment and distance from patients. Osler believes that some distance is necessary in order for the physician to develop what we would call empathy, the ability to understand the patient’s problem accurately and to convey that understanding back to the patient. The virtue of aequanimitas also suggests a general attitude of acceptance that is crucial to good medical practice. Notice, too, that Osler views certain personal qualities (virtues) as essential for the good physician.


First published: 1905

Primary Source



McGraw Hill

Place Published

New York


1932 (3rd Ed.)

Page Count