Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler

Leon, Philip

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Jan-31-1997


William Osler served as one of Walt Whitman’s physicians from 1884, when he moved to Philadelphia to become Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, until 1889, when he left Philadelphia for Baltimore. Osler was introduced to Whitman by a mutual friend, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, Whitman’s avid disciple and biographer. After his stroke of 1873, Whitman suffered from recurrent episodes of illness (perhaps small strokes?). Osler first paid a call to Whitman’s home in Camden at Bucke’s request and subsequently visited him on numerous occasions.

Published in this book for the first time is Osler’s unfinished 1919 manuscript for a lecture recounting his relationship with Whitman. Much of the book is a gloss on this short manuscript. The book actually deals as much (or more) with the remarkable figure of Richard Maurice Bucke, Whitman’s spokesman and the developer of a theory of "cosmic consciousness," as it does with the two title characters. In sum, Whitman respected Osler, but did not particularly like his sunny, optimistic bedside manner. Osler respected Whitman, but for the most part did not like his poetry. (Leon, however, discovered some handwritten notes on Osler’s copy of Leaves of Grass that suggest Osler grew in his later years to appreciate Whitman’s poetry.)


This book is subtitled "A Poet and His Physician," which is an overstatement because Whitman was tended by other physicians as well, and he seemed to like them (e.g. Dr. S. (Silas) Weir Mitchell) better than Osler. However, the text is a delight to read for its interesting anecdotes and insights about Whitman, Osler, Bucke, the medical scene in Philadelphia in the late 1880’s, and the trans-Atlantic acceptance of Whitman’s poetry before and after his death in 1892.

Osler’s manuscript itself is of historical interest only, but Leon’s glosses on the manuscript make fascinating reading. One of the most provocative physician-patient issues in the book is the "poor fit" between Osler’s unfailing optimism toward his patient and Whitman’s distaste for it. The sections dealing with this issue might be used to stimulate discussion on paternalism, truth-telling, and the placebo effect.



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