“Osler Warned”: Was William Osler a Grave Robber While at McGill or Was He a Victim (or Perpetrator) of One Final Practical Joke?
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Bodysnatching was an illegal way to procure cadavers for anatomical dissection before the existence of effective anatomy legislation. As knowledge of anatomy was fundamental to medical practice, many famous nineteenth century physicians turned a blind eye to this activity or even participated. Sir William Osler, perhaps the most revered physician of all time, received his medical degree from McGill University in 1872 and then served as pathologist at Montreal General Hospital from 1874 to 1884, where he began a career which culminated in him becoming both the first Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins and then Regius Professor at Oxford. Quebec had been slow to enact effective anatomy legislation, and most of the cadavers in the McGill anatomy laboratory were resurrected; Osler's close friend and Anatomy Demonstrator Francis Shepherd was convicted of this offence on several occasions. In 1940, a letter was discovered in the archives at the McGill's William Osler Library, purportedly written in 1880, accusing Osler of being a grave robber while in Montreal. My paper dissects the letter to assess its credibility in the historical context of Osler's early life and the fact that Osler was a lifelong notorious practical joker with his own pseudonym, Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis, who helped with his pranks. The provenance of the letter is analyzed and the paper explores, using historical context and forensic handwriting analysis, whether this letter is a revenge-motivated practical joke played on him by one of his famous colleagues or represents Osler's last practical joke for posterity. Clin. Anat. 31:632-640, 2018. © 2018 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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