Dr. William Osler was a giant of the medical field in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also a fan of the Stoics. He was a deep reader who advised his students to read Shakespeare before bed to clear and refresh their minds. He was one of the founding members of Johns Hopkins University and impacted millions of lives through his research.
It was an incredible career that eventually ended, as Marcus Aurelius said of all doctors, on the same humble deathbed that Osler had spent tirelessly working around his whole life. In Osler’s case, almost 100 years ago exactly, he caught the Spanish flu, a deadly pandemic not unlike the one we’re experiencing now.
“I’ve been watching this case for two months,” he joked, “and I’m sorry I shall not see the post mortem.” He had fallen sick on Sep 29, 1919. By Oct 13, his fever was 102.5. Knowing he was marked to die, he took to quoting Tennyson, one of the authors he loved to read: “Release me, and restore me to the ground.”
He died on Dec 29, 1919. His last words: “Hold up my head.” The moment recounted in John M Barry’s The Great Influenza—a must, must-read—Barry writes that Osler “always held his head high.”
But it made no difference.
Marcus Aurelius held his head up high too, and still, in the end, none of us are stronger than a virus that has marked us for death. It doesn’t matter how brilliant we are, it doesn’t matter how much philosophy we’ve read or how many troops we command.
We have to be smart of course, as Marcus Aurelius and Osler would expect us to be: Wear a mask. Do your research. Listen to the experts. Be part of the solution, not the problem—don’t contribute to the R0, the transmission rate of the pandemic.
And as always, be humble. Don’t waste this time you have, whether it’s at home with your family or over the phone or email with friends and colleagues. None of us escapes death in the end. None of us are invincible. Make the most of this moment.