William Osler’s reputation as a leading physician and medical educator of his era is well established. He also enjoyed writing and throughout his life was an enthusiastic student of medical history, interests that led to a series of biographical essays he wrote about the famous and at times not so famous in medicine’s past. The accompanying excerpts from one of these works, “Thomas Dover, M.B. (of Dover’s Powder), Physician and Buccaneer,” illustrate the scholarship, imagination, and literary skill with which Osler told his stories.
Dover’s powder was an opium preparation mentioned by Osler in his well-known textbook The Principles and Practice of Medicine for its use in treating acute bronchitis and typhoid. Who was this man called Dover, Osler might have asked, whose name had been associated for so long with this powder? From the few details about Dover’s life (c. 1660–1742) recorded in Munk’s The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, Volume 2, 1701–1800, from comments provided by Dover himself in his somewhat self-serving book entitled The Ancient Physician’s Legacy to His Country, first published in 1732, and from entries in the journal of Captain Woodes Rogers about his voyage around the world (1708–1711), a voyage in which Dover participated, Osler gives us a fascinating look at this unusual and many-sided individual.
We are told by Osler that Dover enjoyed a successful medical practice in Bristol and London, and was in his early days a student and friend of the great Thomas Sydenham. During his career, Dover devised a popular opium compound to which his name became attached for many years to come. But he clearly had other interests besides medicine. He invested in a privateering expedition to the South Seas, and while serving as a captain aboard one of the ships on this venture participated in plundering cities and capturing treasure ships, making himself a wealthy man in the process. On this same expedition, he also played a part in rescuing a marooned sailor whose solitary life on an island was later the model for Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of Robinson Crusoe. Despite all of his successes, Dover was known as a man with a strong temper and not easy to get on with, often quarreling with those around him.
Osler seemed to have had an affectionate place in his heart for Dover, and his interest in him did not end with the writing of this essay. In 1909, J.A. Nixon of Bristol was the author of an article1 in which he commented that since Dover had been on a “properly-accredited” privateering enterprise and trading expedition, it was unfair to describe him, as had been done, as a lawless buccaneer or pirate. Osler responded to this friendly rebuke by writing to Nixon,2 “How cruel of you to take away the buccaneering aspect of my dear old Dover! Your paper is delightful.” Three years later in 1912, in further correspondence with Nixon,2 he expressed his pleasure at having found a marriage settlement for one of Dover’s daughters that included Dover’s signature and wrote that he would “be very glad indeed to help to put up a suitable tablet to that old reprobate Dover” in Stanway Church, Gloucestershire, where Dover had been buried in a vault beneath the altar but where, because of structural changes that had been made, no memorial to him remained. During the following year, Osler continued writing to Nixon about this proposed memorial, raising the question of what to say on the tablet and what the cost for it might be.2 World War I, followed by Osler’s death in 1919 from pneumonia, put an end to further plans for Dover’s memorial tablet.
Many biographical essays and books about physicians have appeared since Osler’s time. Although his literary style may now seem awkward and outdated, it is doubtful that many of these later publications can match the feeling, sincerity, and eloquence with which he portrayed his subjects. Not only did Osler’s biographical essays make a genuine contribution to the history of medicine—they also provided considerable pleasure for his readers, and still do.
Today, there continues to be considerable discussion about the relevance of medical history to present-day physicians and medical practice, and about how and even if this subject should be incorporated into the medical school curriculum. Over a hundred years ago, Osler wrote that “looking at things from the historical standpoint” is of value to future doctors.3 Years later, William Thayer, who worked in the 1890s as a resident physician with Osler at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, said of his former chief that “he stimulated in his disciples a reverence for the great names of medicine, and an interest sometimes as deep as his own, in the search for the recondite in the history of our art.”4 To this end, Osler used his enthusiasm for medical history and biography when teaching at the bedside and in the clinics, and when writing his essays and articles. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from this.
Martin Duke, MD
1 Nixon JA. Thomas Dover: physician and merchant adventurer. Bristol Med Chir J. 1909;27:31–40.
2 Harvey Cushing Fonds. P 417/: 108.44, 113.67, 113.81, 115.30, 115.37, 115.49; Osler Library, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
3 Osler W. A note on the teaching of the history of medicine. BMJ. 1902;ii:93.
4 Thayer WS. Osler and Other Papers. Baltimore, Md: The Johns Hopkins Press; 1931.