On October 1st, 1903, William Osler provided “An Address on the Master-Word in Medicine” to the medical students enrolled at the University of Toronto. Osler, a key figure in the history of medical education, was invited to celebrate the opening of some new buildings. And, in a way that would not be appreciated today, he elevated his prose with plenty of classical rhetoric … nearly every sentence is jammed packed with adjectives and allusions. But, nonetheless, the address has had some staying power in the medical profession and, perhaps even more so, in the medical humanities. This staying power is due, in large part, to Osler’s other accomplishments but also to his recommendation that every doctor should establish a bedside reading list. He advises that doctors would benefit from a daily half hour of reading good books. By reading “good” books, doctors acquire new perspectives and heightened aptitudes for understanding the human circumstances. He notes that reading helps the professional to escape the circularity of professionalism – one that “tends to narrow the mind” (p. 1199).

I love good literature, as do many hard working people. And, even if I’m not sure that reading makes me a better person, the idea that one could dedicate a half an hour a day to good reading is very appealing. But every day? Where does a busy professional find the time? As a librarian, I juggle a lot of work responsibilities and I also have a family … but, thankfully, I’m not a doctor facing a daily barrage of patients, phone calls, paperwork, and CME requirements. Arguably, there’s more than 30 minutes of wasted time in everyone’s day, but … that’s probably inevitable. And, in any case, where does Osler think doctors will find this half hour of time to read books?

The answer, if it is an answer, is not one that his audience (young men in medical school) wanted to hear. And, I think, his answer is counter to the general idea that reading is a healthy addition to a professional’s daily work. More so than a bedside library, Osler’s address encourages his audience to avoid dating, sex, and women:

“The mistress of your studies should be the heavenly Aphrodite, the motherless daughter of Uranus. … In plainer language, put your affections in cold storage for a few years, and you will take them out ripened, perhaps a bit mellow, but certainly less subject to those frequent changes that perplex so many young men.” (p. 1119)

In other words, professionals can make time by avoiding human physical desire. It seems cruel to demand this of young men, especially. And, even incongruous that a doctor, a professional that should know and attend to the life of the human body, would expect it. Osler was married, so he didn’t deny himself entirely. But, if his address to the students in Toronto is an honest one, his wife clearly shared him with the mistress of his professional and extra-professional work. (The word of Osler’s title “Master-Word” is “work”.) There were not many women attending his address – early on he notes that the audience members are “alike in that you are men and white ….” (p. 1197) – but it’d be interesting to know what they thought of all this talk of mistresses.

Jere Odell, 22 Sep 2017, CC-BY.


Osler, W. (1903). An Address ON THE MASTER-WORD IN MEDICINE. British Medical Journal, 2(2236), 1196–1200. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2514735/