For subscribers: Stolen skulls and racist views: The ‘father of modern medicine’ is under scrutiny at UC San Diego


Alec Calac is a fourth-year medical student at UC San Diego, the second person ever from his Native American band, Pauma, to go to med school. His father was the first.

As proud as he is of that lineage, and as happy as the 26-year-old Escondido native says he is to be studying close to home, there is something about the campus that Calac finds disturbing.

Two things, actually — a street and a parking garage.

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Both are named after Dr. William Osler, a Canadian physician sometimes called “the father of modern medicine.” Dead for more than 100 years, his legacy is coming under increased scrutiny because of certain words and actions — including the taking of four indigenous skulls Osler gifted to a mentor in Germany in the 1880s.

“He is such a renowned figure, you see his name everywhere in the medical world,” said Calac, president of the Association of Native American Medical Students on campus. “While we appreciate that history, we can’t overlook the way he treated marginalized people.”

Alec Calac, medical student and president for the Association of Native American Medical Students

Alec Calac, medical student and president for the Association of Native American Medical Students, at UC San Diego in 2019.

(Courtesy of Alec Calac)

The Osler reassessment comes amid a nationwide racial reckoning, sparked by George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis 15 months ago, that has toppled statues, brought down Confederate flags, and changed the names of numerous facilities both public and private.

That wrestling with questions about who deserves to be enshrined as role models has in turn triggered a backlash from some upset about what they see as a “cancel culture” threatening to erase parts of the nation’s heritage.

At UCSD, the questions are sensitive because the campus recognizes it was built on lands not officially ceded by the Kumeyaay Nation, whose people have lived in the region for more than 10,000 years. The discovery on the La Jolla campus in 1976 of two skeletons believed to be 9,500 years old opened old wounds about the mistreatment of ancestral remains and touched off a courtroom battle between scientists who wanted to study the bones and Native Americans who wanted them repatriated.

Historically, the campus has struggled to attract Native American students. Of 30,794 enrolled in 2019, 119 identified as American Indian/Alaska Native. Calac said there are eight in the medical student association now, up from two in 2018.

“Things are improving, but we still need to address the continued under-representation of Native Americans in graduate and professional programs,” he said. “Part of that work involves examining our public spaces. Osler had no direct relation to this area.”

Calac and the student association have been urging UCSD administrators to change the names of Osler Lane and the Osler Parking Structure, both located close to the medical school. This month, they gained the support of the Sycuan Tribal Council, which passed a resolution asking the university to “remove references to William Osler” and convene a committee to pick new names.

University officials are reviewing the request.

“UC San Diego holds great respect for the land and the original people of the area where our campus is located,” said Matt Nagel, a campus spokesperson. “The university strives to demonstrate this respect, and works in a genuine effort to honor local tribal communities.”

A legendary doctor

Much of Osler’s lingering influence stems from the changes he brought to the way medical students are taught. He wanted them learning not just in classrooms, but in hospitals, at bedside.

“He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea,” he once wrote, “but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.”

Born and raised in Canada, Osler became a pioneering educator first at his alma mater, McGill University in Montreal, where he introduced new courses in histology and pathology, and then at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he was a founder of the medical school. It opened in 1893.

Sir William Osler, a Canadian physician and one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Sir William Osler, a Canadian physician and one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

(Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty)

He authored a textbook, “The Principles and Practice of Medicine,” which went through 16 printings during his lifetime and remained a key reference book for decades. He identified several diseases, syndromes and diagnostic markers that bear his name.

Osler contributed regularly to scientific and medical literature, and frequently gave talks and presentations at medical conferences. He amassed an 8,000-volume collection of medical literature that became the foundation of what is now the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill.

By 1900, his work as a clinician, educator and consultant, and his reputation as a humanist, had made him “one of the best-known physicians in the world,” according to a biography on the National Institutes of Health website.

He died on Dec. 29, 1919, from pneumonia. He was 70.

Osler’s prominence led to several posthumous books that reprinted his lectures and notable quotes, as well as a two-volume biography that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1926.

Numerous elementary and high schools got named after him in Canada. Buildings, promenades, dining halls and dormitories carry his name in Canada, the U.S., England and India.

At UC San Diego, Osler Lane was named years ago “to recognize his significant contributions to the study of medicine,” said Leslie Sepuka, a campus spokesperson. When the parking garage was built in 2018, it got the name Osler, too, in keeping with “university practice to give parking structures the same name as the street location to aid in wayfinding for campus visitors,” she said.

Other honorifics in various places around the world include a William Osler Medal, an Osler Lecture, a Student Award in Oslerian Medicine and an Osler Day. There is an Osler Institute in Indiana.

The American Osler Society, started in the early 1970s, is a group of physicians, medical historians and others dedicated to keeping alive the memory of Osler, and, according to its website, “keeping its members vigilantly attentive to the lessons found in his life and teachings.”

Four ‘choice’ skulls

In late 2019, students in the medical school at McGill raised questions about Osler. They pointed to comments attributed to him that they said showed he held “white supremacist and sexist views.”

The students asked the university to do some “self-reflection about the way Sir William Osler is glorified and how his name is uncritically used.” Some of the names on buildings, the students said, should be changed to honor a more diverse group of historical figures and to better reflect “our evolving social norms” about the treatment of women and people of color.

A year later, a paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal echoed those concerns. Written by two Toronto doctors and a New York public health professor, the article criticized Osler’s racial views, pointing to a 1914 newspaper account that quoted him as saying this about immigration: “The question with us is what are we to do when the yellow and brown men begin to swarm over?”

Later in the same speech he said, “We are bound to make our country a White man’s country.”

The journal paper generated a slew of responses from other doctors. Most defended Osler as “a man of his times” and said it’s unfair to judge him through a present-day lens.

“Turns out our saint Osler has demons,” a Calgary physician wrote. “Do we risk negating all the good he contributed to medical practice by publicly defrocking him? That’s a clear risk in today’s black-or-white court of public opinion.”

The journal paper also pointed to a trip Osler made in 1884 to Berlin, where one of his mentors had a collection of human skeletons. Osler brought him a gift.

“I took with me four choice examples of skulls of British Columbian Indians, knowing well how acceptable they would be,” he wrote in a travel journal.

The whereabouts of those skulls, almost 140 years later, sparked an investigation last year by journalists in Canada and Germany, who believe they found them in the holdings of an anthropological society in Berlin. A member of the Tuscarora Nation in Canada has begun the process of formally asking for the remains to be returned to tribal lands for burial.

Calac, the UCSD medical student, said he was aware of some of Osler’s racially offensive comments, but not the skulls, which fueled his association’s efforts to rename the street and parking structure on campus in partnership with the community.

“Osler’s actions weren’t small missteps,” he said. “The theft of indigenous remains represents a complete disregard for our humanity.”

UC San Diego isn’t the only place where Osler’s legacy is being scrutinized. At McGill University, his alma mater, administrators held a symposium in February and have appointed a task force to evaluate the naming practices for buildings there.

The University of San Diego went through a similar process two years ago when it weighed how to honor Father Junipero Serra, the 18th century Spanish priest who founded the system that built 21 Catholic missions from San Diego to San Francisco.

Lauded and eventually sainted for his determination and faith in bringing Christianity to California, he also oversaw a regime that’s been criticized for decimating Native American lives and culture.

After several years of review, the university renamed two buildings to honor Native Americans. Serra Hall became Saints Tekakwitha and Serra Hall, a nod to Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint.

The Mission Crossroads building, an administrative center for the school’s residence halls, was renamed Mata’yuum Crossroads, referring to the Kumeyaay word for “gathering place.”