Sir William had left instructions that his postmortem examination was to be carried out by Dr. A. G. Gibson with the assistance of Edwin Wheal, his personal laboratory assistant. The very detai’ed report is preserved in the Osier Library at McGill.
Dr. A. G. Gibson (1875-1950), an Oxford graduate, was house physician at the Radcliffe Infirmary when Osier arrived as Regius. Gibson developed an interest in pathology which he combined with clinical work; he acted as voluntary assistant to the Regius for his clinical demonstrations, and a close friendship and mutual admiration evolved between them. Indeed, it is said that unknowingly he assumed some of Osier’s mannerisms. Gibson, in due course, became both Pathologist and Physician to the Infirmary, and shone in both fields. Dr. Gibson sent a copy of the postmortem report to Dr. W. W. Francis in 1933 which is headed “Autopsy on the body of Sir William Osier Bt. on 30.XII.19. at 2.30 p.m. at Norham Gardens, Oxford.” It will be sufficient to transcribe the section dealing with the thoracic organs:
The pericardium is normal and contains about 2 ml of clear straw-coloured fluid.
Within ten days of his return, Osier was called to a consultation in Scotland, but was caught in a railway strike and had to return from Newcastle by car, which broke down on the way, and he arrived at Oxford on September 28, with a severe chill, and went straight to bed. At first it seemed to be one of his usual attacks of bronchitis, but it soon became apparent, with fever and paroxysms of coughing, that this was something more serious. Osier realized this, and though he teased his junior colleagues, Drs. Collier and Gibson, who were looking after him, he was cancelling his appointments, leaving instructions on notes and postcards, and did not conceal his foreboding from his wife.
From childhood, Osier had been subject to respiratory infections, and, though he had a severe attack of influenza in Berlin in 1873, it was not until he was aged 48 that he began to have bronchial attacks, verging on pneumonia, almost every winter; some were serious enough to cause anxiety to friends and colleagues, others provided a respite from clinical work, allowing him to catch up on reading and writing.
It was in 1900, on his recovery from one of these attacks, that he withdrew his application for the Edinburgh chair. Emerson recalled that Osier’s health was by no means good in his latter days at Baltimore: “I am tired of the strain of the past few years which could only have one end—a breakdown.”
In the summer of 1971 a story was going the rounds of the North American continent, which soon crossed the Atlantic, that Sir William Osier was a heavy smoker and had died, not from empyema, but from carcinoma of the lung. The stage was set for a Tonypandy phenomenon, so called by Josephine Tey after a notorious nonevent during the 1910 Welsh coal strike and defined by her as “a completely untrue story grown to legend, while the men who knew it to be untrue looked on and said nothing.” The unravelling of this Oslerian rumor proved more complex than had been expected.
Sir Richard Doll was appointed Regius Professor of Medicine in the University of Oxford on February 13, 1969. A week later he was speaking at the Royal Northern Hospital on “Unwanted Drug Effects.” After the lecture, the Dean, Dr. D. G. James, an able physician and ebulient medical historian, gave Doll a photograph of the Osiers in the garden of the “Open Arms,” 13 Norham Gardens, for Sir Richard would be the second Regius to enjoy Osiers benefaction by residing there. The picture showed Osier holding a cigarette, and Dr. James, recalling that Osier had died from complications of pneumonia, and Doll’s interest in the association of lung cancer and smoking, raised the question as to whether a pulmonary neoplasm had been the real cause of his death; so the seed was sown. Of course Gerry James, as President of the Osier Club, should have known Osier’s medical history better, but it is his uninhibited Cymric exuberance that is so endearing.
It is necessary to consider Osiers attitude to tobacco, which, like alcohol, he looked on as an enjoyable indulgence, harmless in moderation. There is no doubt that he regarded alcohol as far more perilous than tobacco—he had the sad example of his own brother, Frank, who, in spite of his weakness for the bottle outlived them all, dying in 1933. This fear of alcoholic over-indulgence was deeply ingrained, for when Osiers mother was approaching 90, her son prescribed a little whisky, though she demurred “But Benjamin, if I should get the habit?”
At any rate, Osier was a teetotaller until he came to Europe on his first visit, as a young postgraduate from McGill; it was about the same time that he began to smoke. In 1896, he said he was a cigarette smoker of 24 years standing, which would date his initiation as 1872 when he was 23, and working in Burdon-Sandersons laboratory at University College. A year later he was in Berlin and noted that:
“The students have a curious habit of forming small societies of 10 or 12, who have a room at some restaurant where they meet to drink beer, smoke, and discuss various topics. If tobacco and beer have such a deteriorating effect on mind and body, as some of our advanced teetotallers affirm, we ought to see signs of it here; but the sturdy Teuton, judging from the events of the past few years, has not degenerated physically, at any rate, while intellectually he is still to the fore in most scientific subjects; whether, however, in spite of—or with the aid of—the ‘fragrant weed’ and the ‘flowing bowl’ could hardly be decided.”