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Home > McGill News > 2000 > Spring 2000 > Reviews

William Osler: A Life in Medicine, University of Toronto Press, 1999, $50, by Michael Bliss.

Non-medical people have often asked for an explanation of the Osler mystique. How could this Canadian physician who spent his formative years at McGill still have influence over the medical profession 80 years after his death? How could he have been revered almost as a saint by the medical profession in Canada, the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom during his life and thereafter?

The answer was never easy and seldom convincing because it lay in the aggregate of his character, his work ethic, his monumental textbook, his relationship with physicians and students and people of all ages, his massive correspondence, his very decency and honesty. It lay to a large extent in his influence on the teaching of medical students in the United States, on the dominant medical societies of the English-speaking world, on his insistence that medical treatment be shown to be effective in an era when in truth there were few effective medications.

All this is beautifully explained in Bliss's superb biography. He said that he wanted to present Osler "warts and all" but he really didn't find any warts other than the tuberculous nodules on his hands from the autopsies performed at the Montreal General Hospital. Of course he was a prankster all his life and got into fairly serious trouble as a schoolboy for this reason.

Bliss shows an excellent grasp of the medical milieu and of the infectious diseases rampant in Osler's time which formed the backdrop for his professional life. A microscopist and natural scientist from youth, Osler was one of the first in North America to visualize the tubercle bacillus recently described by Koch in Germany. Though a clinician rather than a scientist, he insisted that the rudimentary laboratories available at the end of the 19th century be fully used in the investigation of patients at Johns Hopkins.

Harvey Cushing's exhaustive The Life of Sir William Osler was published 75 years ago. Was another biography necessary after this almost daily inscription of Osler's life? Cushing himself foresaw a later biography "when the colour, lights and shadows come in time to be added" to his "outlines for the final portrait." This we now have in Bliss's work. The passage of time has provided more material from family and friends and the human being emerges more clearly. His remarkable appreciation and fondness for children is documented time and again; he loved to play with them as equals. Despite his dedication to equanimity in the highs and lows of life we learn from his wife Grace's correspondence of how terrible were the nights after their dear and only son, Revere, was killed in the Great War. During the days he could carry on with his wartime duties but the mask came off at home.

This biography clearly explains the reverence accorded William Osler during his life and afterwards. The work is objective and thoroughly documented, never hagiographic, easily read by all, in short — a tour de force.

Emeritus Professor, Department of Surgery

Jan Wong's China, Doubleday Canada, 1999, $32.95, by Jan Wong, BA'74.

Red China Blues, Jan Wong's first book, made her both a bestselling author and persona non grata in China. Thus her decision to write another book marking the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic in October 1999 meant slipping into the country by a back door. Knowing how to get in — and get around — came thanks to her previous 12 years' experience in China, as a student, fervent Maoist, and later a correspondent for The Globe and Mail.

To see and learn things normally hidden from visitors, Wong made use of both her Canadian journalistic credentials and the fact that her Chinese heritage made her foreignness "invisible." Through her, we are witness to a China in the throes of an "Industrial Revolution, compressed in time" with "the same unbridled greed, the same emerging new-rich class and the same miserable mass of impoverished workers." In the last decade, more than 100 million peasants poured into China's cities in search of work, creating what Wong calls "one of the biggest demographic changes in history."

She meets people at both extremes of the economic spectrum. In one region, poverty is so severe that 40% of its 22 million people do not have enough food or clothing, and retardation occurs at a rate 60% higher than the national average because of malnutrition, intermarriage and pollution. On another occasion, Wong visits a private school so exclusive that an eight-year-old hands out business cards.

In the midst of unprecedented social and economic upheaval, China's central government meanwhile attempts to maintain control of its citizens' lives. The country's one-baby limit may be well known, but Wong says, "Stalinist-style quota fever infected virtually every aspect of life in China." There are quotas for the number of traffic fatalities, for diseases, for drownings and for deaths by food poisoning. Some quotas have to be filled and some cannot be exceeded. When Deng Xiaoping launched an anti-crime campaign, zealous authorities in one county met their target by rounding up and executing several dozen locals.

We are struck by intriguing cultural differences. For example, blood donors may get a month off work after giving half of the quantity of blood generally given here. Even then, there are few takers. During one campaign in Beijing, with a population at the time of 10 million, only 19 donors volunteered.

For those familiar with Red China Blues, some observations may be old material, as the book does cut back and forth among the various periods Wong spent in China. In fact, the book's biggest problem is that it's not always easy to figure out which era we're in. Certainly, first-time readers will be fascinated by Wong's insights and entertained by her brisk prose style and slightly gimlet-eyed approach. One especially interesting section is devoted to Tibet, in which Wong gives a more balanced account of China's role there and dispels some of the Richard Gere-generated hype.

China's potential to affect the global environment may be reason enough to learn as much as we can about the revolution taking place in this puzzling, remarkable country. Jan Wong's book is a great start.


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