04 August 2011

The Pharmacists' Bastard Literature

Sir William Osler, Canadian physician and professor at McGill University, came to America in the 1880s, and became one of the founders of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His biography on Wikipedia is quite thorough, so I won’t repeat it here.

In 1902, he gave an address on ‘Chauvinism in Medicine’ to the Canadian Medical Association. It is included in the 1932 collection of his lectures and addresses, Aequanimitas. In it, he makes an observation on the relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies that could have been printed as an op-ed piece today.

[The skeptical attitude] may keep the practitioner out of the clutches of the arch enemy of his professional independence – the pernicious literature of our camp-followers, a literature increasing in bulk, in meretricious attractiveness, and in impudent audacity. To modern pharmacy we owe much, and to pharmaceutical methods we shall owe much more in the future, but the profession has no more insidious foe than the large borderland pharmaceutical houses. No longer an honoured messmate, pharmacy in this form threatens to become a huge parasite, eating the vitals of the body medical. We all know only too well the bastard literature which floods the mail, every page of which illustrates the truth of the axiom, the greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism.

The emphasis added here is not original, but reproduced from the library copy that I read. This struck me particularly, as the book was apparently donated to the University of New Mexico Library by Harvey A. K. Whitney (1894-1957), who received his Ph.C. degree from the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy in 1923 and went on to found the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists in 1942. Furthermore, glued inside the front cover is a letter dated May 1932, presumably sent generically to newly minted doctors, as the salutation is a simple “Dear Doctor”, reading as follows:

Dear Doctor:

Together with congratulations on your attainment of a medical degree, this volume of addresses by Sir William Osler, who adorned your profession in the United States for so many years, is cordially presented.

As the addresses by this master mind of modern medicine are read, may you catch his vision of the almost boundless possibilities of your chosen profession.

May you share with him his ‘relish of knowledge’ and his absorbing love and passionate, persistent search for truth.

Above all, may there come to you an inspiration which will enable you to live a rich, a happy, and an abundant life.

Sincerely yours,


The letter is signed by Eli Lilly, President. It seems clear to me that this was a promotional gift. Apparently, Osler’s own book became part of the bastard literature flowing from pharmacists to physicians.

Cruel fate.


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