The Old Humanities and the New Science

By William Osler, 1919
The Old Humanities and the New Science

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Excerpt

THE OLD HUMANITIES AND
THE NEW SCIENCE

I

Early in the sixteenth century a literary joke sent inextinguishable laughter through the learned circles of Europe. The Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum is great literature, to which I refer for two reasons—its standard is an exact gauge of my scholarship, and had Magister Nostrandus Ortuinus Gratius of Cologne, to whom most of the letters are addressed, been asked to join that wicked Erfurt Circle, he could not have been more surprised than I was to receive a gracious invitation to preside over this gathering of British scholars. I felt to have been sailing under false colours to have ever, by pen or tongue, suggested the possession of even the traditional small Latin and less Greek. Relieved by the assurance that in alternate years the qualification of your President was an interest in education and literature, I gladly accepted, not, however, without such anticipatory qualms as afflict an amateur at the thought of addressing a body of experts. Not an educated man in the Oxford sense, yet faint memories of the classics linger—the result of ten years of such study as lads of my generation pursued, memories best expressed in Tom Hood's lines:

"The weary tasks I used to con! The hopeless leaves I wept upon! Most fruitless leaves to me!"

In a life of teaching and practice, a mere picker-up of learning's crumbs is made to realize the value of the humanities in science not less than in general culture.

To have a Professor of Medicine in this Chair gives to the Oxford meeting an appropriate renaissance—shall we say mediæval?—flavour, [pg 5] and one may be pardoned the regret that the meeting is not being held in May, 1519, to have had the pleasure of listening to an address from a real Oxford scholar-physician, an early teacher of Greek in this University, and the founder of the Royal College of Physicians, whose Rudimenta Grammatices and De Emendata Structura Latini Sermonis upheld for a generation, on the Continent at least, the reputation of English scholarship. These noble walls, themselves an audience—indeed, most appreciative of audiences—have storied memories of Linacre's voice, and the basis of the keen judgment of Erasmus may have been formed by intercourse with him in this very school. In those happy days, to know Hippocrates and Galen was to know disease and to be qualified to practise; and my profession looks back in grateful admiration to such great medical humanists as Linacre and Caius and Rabelais. Nor can I claim to speak for pure science, some salt of which remains from early association, and from a lifelong attempt to correlate with art a science which makes medicine, I was going to say the only—but it is more civil to say the most—progressive of the learned professions.

To have lived right through an epoch, matched only by two in the story of the race, to have shared in its long struggle, to have witnessed its final victory (and in my own case, to be left I trust with wit enough to realize its significance)—to have done this has been a wonderful privilege. To have outgrown age-old theories of man and of nature, to have seen west separated from east in the tangled skein of human thought, to have lived in a world re-making—these are among the thrills and triumphs of the Victorian of my generation. To a childhood and youth came echoes of the controversy that Aristarchus began, Copernicus continued, and Darwin ended, that put the microcosm into line with the macrocosm, and for the golden age of Eden substituted the tellus dura of Lucretius. Think of the Cimmerian darkness out of which our generation has, at any rate, blazed a path! Picture the mental state of a community which could produce "Omphalos: An Attempt to untie the Geological Knot"! I heard warm clerical discussions on its main thesis, that the fossils were put into the earth's strata to test men's faith in the Mosaic account of the creation, and our Professor of Natural Theology lectured seriously upon it! The intellectual unrest of those days wrapped many in that "dyvine cloude of unknowynge," by which happy phrase Brother Herp designates mediæval mysticism; and not a bad thing for a young man to live through, as sufficient infection usually remains to enable him to understand, if not to sympathize with, mental states alien or even hostile.