He wrote the book

In 1899, John Whitridge Williams, whose name lives on in the definitive textbook on pregnancy and childbirth, succeeded Howard Kelly as the head of obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Kelly had split off baby-catching from the more interesting (to him) department of gynecology, which he continued to head up.

John Whitridge Williams
John Whitridge Williams

Williams, a Baltimore native, came from a medical family -- his mother's forebears had been doctors for 160 years. He trained at the University of Maryland, and then in Vienna, Berlin, and other European cities, which exposed him to a different way of looking at medicine.

Williams' Obstetrics, first published in 1903, and still in print today, came out of Williams' desire to render everything about pregnancy and birth in scientific terms. The first edition contained more than 1,000 references to other medical publications.

Williams wrote five additional editions of the book before he died in 1931, of complications from abdominal surgery.

The departments of obstetrics and gynecology were finally reunited at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1960.

The 23rd edition of Williams' Obstetrics was published in 2009.

Calvin Trillin’s rule of thumb

The writer-humorist Calvin Trillin has said that his idea of alternative medicine is a doctor who was not trained at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md. To the extent that Johns Hopkins is considered the gold standard of medical care, the institution's excellence owes much to its beginnings.

Johns Hopkins

Johns Hopkins

Johns Hopkins, the son of prosperous Maryland Quakers (his first name was his great-grandmother's maiden name), made a fortune investing in America's first important railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio.

In 1867, he established funds for a university and hospital to bear his name, and when he died in 1873, he left $7 million for the two institutions, the largest gift ever bequeathed in America up to that point.

John Shaw Billings, a major in the U.S. army who had distinguished himself as a surgeon in the Civil War, and for his writings on, and criticism of, the care of sick and injured soldiers, created a plan for the hospital that reflected his keen interest in infrastructure, and his assiduous research into the best hospital designs in Europe.

John Shaw Billings

John Shaw Billings

For example, he had the hospital wired for electricity years before it was on the grid. Johns Hopkins was also the first hospital in the country with central heating.

The measures Billings took to prevent the spread of disease throughout the hospital ranged from the horizonal layout of the wards, to the decision not to include elevators, to the elaborate ventilation system that prevented patients from breathing each other's air.

Billings also came up with the idea of a four-year medical school and favored a tough curriculum to weed out all but the best candidates. According the John Hopkins Medicine website, history has not given this remarkable man his due.

Getting the hospital up and running took 12 years. Even though many of the revolutionary ideas the institution embodied were his, Billings decided it was time to move on. He ended his career as director of the New York Public Library.

Johns Hopkins Hospital

An early view of the hospital

Opened in 1889, Johns Hopkins Hospital had 17 buildings (three of which remain today, part of a 22-acre campus) and cost $2 million.

Johns Hopkins Hospital had no religious affiliation, which made some people nervous. In 1896, William Wallace Spence, a wealthy Baltimore businessmen, donated a large statue of Jesus Christ that still stands in the rotunda of the Billings Administration Building.

All aboard!

Remember, dear reader, I said there would be tangents. Now we are embarking on a trip to Baltimore, Md., and childbirth will barely be mentioned for a while.

Locomotion

In his groundbreaking 1982 book, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Paul Starr plumbs the source of mainstream medicine's authority. Simply put, it comes from the public's dependence on the doctor's superior competence, real or perceived.

As the title of Starr's book suggests, doctors were not always able to lay claim to that authority. Indeed, before the germ theory was proved and methods of administering anesthesia devised, making possible the development of effective surgery, physicians had very little to offer. (That didn't keep them from practicing, though.)

But in Baltimore, late in the 19th century, with new technologies and understandings developing rapidly on all sides, events were unfolding that would help solidify the medical profession's authority.

Image by permission  http://creativecommons.org

No Canadian heroes? Here’s one.

Canada's full-bore pursuit of gold at the Olympics the country is hosting in Vancouver, B.C., has attracted much comment, mostly about how out-of-character overt ambition supposedly is for Canadians.

Writing in the New York Times last week, Charles McGrath quoted the Canadian writer George Woodcock on the subject: “Canadians do not like heroes, and so they do not have them. They do not even have great men in the accepted sense of the word.”

Here's one for the books, then -- William Osler, the so-called "father of modern medicine," a great man if ever there was one, born in Bond Head, Ont., in 1849.

William Osler

Dr. William Osler

Osler received his medical degree from McGill University in Montreal in 1872 but, critically, then went abroad to study in London, Berlin and Vienna before returning to join the McGill faculty. By 1883, he was one of two Canadian fellows of the British Royal College of Physicians. The next year, he accepted a post as professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

It was as a founding faculty member of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, where he went in 1888, that Osler had the opportunity to put the innovations he had seen in Europe to work.

Osler insisted that the patient could teach medical students nearly everything they needed to know -- that the study of medicine was properly conducted at the bedside -- and that hands-on laboratory research must also be part of medical training.  He also introduced the German model of post-graduate training, a one-year internship followed by several years of full-time residency.

These innovations began a profound change in American medical education, which up to this point had been largely a matter of learning from lectures.

Osler was able to implement his ideas because he was an excellent doctor. In 1905 he moved to England to take up a prestigious post as professor of medicine at the University of Oxford. His book, The Principles and Practice of Medicine, was a major work in medicine for nearly half a century.

Osler died in England in 1919, of the Spanish flu.

Canadians might say that Osler's absconding to the United States and England rules him out as a national hero, but it says something when a boy from Bond Head can hit the heights of world medicine.