Knocking Down Racist Doctors Like Osler From False Pedestals

Osler, white supremacist doctor
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William Osler. Photo: Wikipedia.

An article in the January 2022 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, the leading medical journal for internists grabbed my attention. It read- “A Legacy of Scientific Racism: William Osler’s ‘An Alabama Student’”. 

William Osler (1849-1919) is perhaps the most influential and admired physician, a renowned medical educator and a prolific writer, equally revered on both sides of the Atlantic and is considered the father of modern medicine. In addition to his native Canada, he distinguished himself in the U.S. as a founding professor of Johns Hopkins and in the U.K. as a Professor and chief of medicine at Oxford. Osler wrote several biographical profiles of prominent physicians among which was a celebratory biography of Basset, the Alabama student in the title above. Dr. Basset was a practicing physician in Alabama, a contemporary of Osler’s and a known enslaver who considered Blacks as subhuman. 

This revelation of this aspect of Osler’s persona came as an unpleasant discovery for me who, like many of my colleagues held him in the highest esteem as an icon of medicine, and a gold standard by which generations of physicians have been measured. The medical residency training program as we know it today was started by Osler.

Little did I know that there was another shameful side to Osler that the medical establishment was silent about; that he was a flawed man infected with the putrid stench of white supremacy. In an article in the Journal of Canadian Medical Association titled “William Osler: Saint in a ‘White Man’s Dominion’”, Nav Persaud quotes Osler as saying “Canada is a White Man’s country” referring to an incident involving Indian immigrants

Persaud also cites Osler, trying to comfort a female physician who lost six patients to pneumonia in the Colored Ward with these words: “…the Coloreds, usually both syphilitic and alcoholic were the worst risk in pulmonary area”. The indigenous people fared even worse. He wrote, under a pseudonym, “every primitive tribe retains some vile animal habit not yet eliminated in the upward march of the race”. Apologists for Osler and others like him tend to forgive them saying they were “products” of the society in their time. I beg to differ. Are we not all products of our societies?

The American Founding Father and abolitionist Dr. Benjamin Rush who lived a century before Osler wrote “all of the claims of superiority of the whites over the blacks, on account of their skin color are founded alike in ignorance and inhumanity” 

Readers of this newspaper may recall my article on another “giant of medicine’ considered the father of gynecology, Dr. Marion Sims. The article  brought to the attention of readers the diabolical human experimentation he conducted on young enslaved Black girls he bought for the macabre sole purpose of carrying out multiple surgeries in their pelvic organs without anesthesia in an attempt to perfect a procedure to correct vesico-vaginal fistula. Sims’ statue in front of the Institute of Medicine in New York’s Central Park was removed after a public uproar on discovering his sadistic past.

The U.S. is now going through serious self-examination and soul-searching concerning its shameful past that continues to intrude into the present. A variety of recently published ground-breaking books by authors like, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Imran Kandi, Robin D’Angelo and Milton Allimadi ,to name a few, are beginning to delve into the genesis of racism.

Some educational institutions, business and financial enterprises, governmental and nongovernmental organizations are beginning to face up to their past—and present— ignominious practices of systemic racism thereby helping perpetuate racial disparities in health, education, housing, and other measurable socioeconomic indices, not to mention environmental racism that targets minority neighborhoods as toxic dumps causing chronic illnesses such as asthma, other respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

The medical profession, insulated from scrutiny because of its noble mission of caring for people and therefore held in high regard by society, has yet to address the pervasive systemic racism within its ranks that turned a blind eye to crimes such as those of Dr. Sims, the Tuskegee experiment and forced sterilization of African American women, a procedure euphemistically dubbed “Mississippi appendectomy”; the list is endless.

 The American College of Physicians (ACP) is among a smattering of medical societies that has begun to address its own racism. A position Paper titled “Racism and Health in the United States: A Policy Statement From the American College of Physicians was published in its journal of October 2020. An editorial called for “organizational commitment to be antiracist, diverse, equitable and inclusive”. Physicians sworn to uphold the Hippocratic Oath have repeatedly across generations violated the cardinal principle, Primum non nocere--First, do no harm--by inflicting consciously or unconsciously, harm upon their fellow citizens of color.

We can only hope this time it will be different and that other medical societies would emulate the ACP in dealing with deeply entrenched racism within the medical profession. Physician Heal Thyself. 

Mohammed A. Nurhussein MD

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