New exhibition on McGill student life

The Osler Library has installed a new mini-exhibition highlighting some items that shed life on past McGill Med student life. Textbooks, exams, photographs, and artefacts provide an important pictorial record of student life at McGill’s medical faculty and its teaching hospitals.

Ten photographs from the Isadore Hirshberg Fonds document the early career of an American medical student at McGill. Isadore Benjamin Hirshberg (1890-1965) was born in Bay City, Michigan, and began his medical studies at McGill in 1909 and graduated in 1914. In 1913 he trained at the Alexandra Hospital for Infectious Diseases when John McCrae was on staff and in 1914 interned at the Montreal General Hospital. During the First World War he served at the Canadian Explosives plant at Beloeil, Quebec, and was later among the founders of the Jewish General Hospital.

The artefacts on display include a reflex hammer, a glass syringe, and a doctor’s kit, as well as a blunt hook and perforator, two instruments used in childbirth emergencies.

Other ephemera show the administrative side of student life: items such as admission cards, invitation cards, and certificates document medical student William B. Malloch’s from 1863-1870.

Two examinations from 1865-66 show what 19th-century med students were expected to know. One question on the exam for “Theory and Practice of Medicine” asks, “Give the causes of Croup and of Laryngismus Stridulus, the means of distinguishing them from each other, and the treatment suitable to them.”

Our new display is located in the 3rd floor study space in the McIntyre Medical Building, 3655 Promenade Sir-William-Osler, open from 9-5, Monday through Friday.


Getting started: William Osler Medical Students Essay Awards

Essay Awards season is upon us! We are currently accepting proposals for essays as part of the William Osler Medical Students Essay Awards, established by the Osler Library and the Osler Society of McGill and endowed by Pam and Rolando Del Maestro.

Here are a couple hints and links to get started in researching a potential topic:

The History of Medicine subject guide, Medical Sociology subject guide, Biomedical Ethics subject guide are librarian-curated guides to the fields, with links to catalogues, databases, image and digital text collections, and references sources like encyclopedias.

Do you have a general interest in a topic but aren’t sure where to go with it? Start by a simple search in the McGill Library catalogue to locate a book on the subject. Particularly if you’re interested in a more historical or humanities topic, books are still a key source of information. Instead of jumping immediately to journal literature, try skimming a book on your general topic (or look through the subject guide to find a relevant encyclopedia), and see what piques your interest.

Are you interested in working with historical materials at the library? Get inspired by one of our numerous collections:

Anatomical atlases (potential sources for projects related to history of anatomy, surgery and its specializations, medical illustration, history of the body, history of medical education)

Paris Medical Theses Collection (a massive collection, for readers of French, covering many different medical topics from 1786-1920s)

Osler Artefacts (a rich collection of historical medical artifacts. See another example from our blog here)

Wilder Penfield Fonds (an archival collection, partially digitized, about the history of neurosurgery and the Montreal Neurological Institute)

Almanac Collection (ephemeral or informal publications like pamphlets that are filled with health and home tips and pharmaceutical advertising,19th and early 20th centuries)

Sir William Osler Collection (a collection of books, notebooks, letters, lectures, photographs, and many more archival records of the great physician himself)

Find more rare books and pamphlets by searching in the McGill Library Classic Catalogue. This catalogue only contains print holdings (no e-books or articles) and you can use it to narrow down your search only to materials in the Osler Library: Click the “Sub-catalogues” tab, then click “Osler Library of the History of Medicine” under the Library and Collections category.

Discover archival materials by searching in our Archives Database. You can search by a keyword in the description or browse by subject. Popular subjects include McGill medical student life through history, Montreal doctors, and WWI medical history. Additional archival materials about McGill can be found at the central Archives.

Proposals are due May 24th! Please don’t hesitate to contact the library at if you’d like to make an appointment to view materials or meet with a librarian.


Montreal and the History of Vaccination Debates at the Osler Library

La version française suit

“The recent smallpox epidemic in Montreal – vaccinating American-bound passengers on a train of the Grand Trunk Railway,” by Marvin James, photo-mechanical reproduction of a wood engraving (1885). Osler Library Prints Collection, OPF000001.

Montreal 375 gives us the opportunity to reflect on the parcours of our city, to explore its past, and to bring this history into dialogue with our present. Our current exhibit at the Osler Library not only highlights the richness of our collections, but also brings them into contemporary conversations in a very Oslerian way. Sir William Osler collected his monumental library of the history of medicine not simply for the intellectual content or the beauty of the books and objects, but because he believed that we live with the past everyday: “the past,” Osler writes in his famous speech, Aequanimitas, “is always with us; never to be escaped; it alone is enduring.”

Our newest exhibition, “Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998,” engages with local examples of historical vaccine controversies in an attempt to understand the enduring fear and hesitancy surrounding vaccination. Curators Dr. Rob Boddice of the Freie Universitat Berlin and Cynthia Tang, PhD candidate in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine/Department of History and Classical Studies, showcase the arguments made by pro- and anti-vaccinationists during the 200 years following Edward Jenner’s invention of vaccination.

Stipple engraving of Edward Jenner by Mackenzie (London: T. Hurst, 1802). Osler Library Prints Collection, OP000643.

In 1798, Jenner, an English country physician, published the results of his experimental use of matter from cowpox pustules to inoculate patients against smallpox, which has long been endemic to industrialized cities like Montreal. This procedure, which Jenner named vaccination, was swiftly implemented as a standard public health measure and vials of vaccine were shipped and carried worldwide. However, vaccination’s benefits and promises were attended by controversy from its earliest days. Already at the beginning of the 19th century, popular pamphlets and images stoked public anxieties about the introduction of animal material and disease agents into the body. Even after the World Health Organization proclaimed smallpox eradicated in 1980, the debates surrounding vaccination that began in the 19th century have persisted in our public discourse.

Glass capillary tube containing smallpox vaccine (Toronto, ca. 1939). Canada Science and Technology Museum, Medical Technology, art. no. 2002.0101.

A public panel presentation connected to the exhibition invited McGill and Montreal community members to think about how we understand such past examples of vaccine hesitancy and connect them to modern concerns and mythologies around vaccination. The two co-curators were joined by scholars Professor Andrea Kitta (East Carolina University), a folklorist specializing in medicine, belief and the supernatural, with a particular focus on vaccination, and late Dr. Mark Wainberg (McGill University), director of the McGill University AIDS Centre at the Montreal Jewish General Hospital, and outspoken critic of anti-vaccination rhetoric. The evening’s panel providing a wide-ranging and multidisciplinary perspective. More evidence as to the cross-institutional partnerships developed for this exhibition and the event is the blog post, “Hope and Fear in a Glass Capillary: Connecting over the History of Medicine with the Osler Library,” written by curator Cynthia Tang for the Canada Science and Technology Museum blog. In it, she explores a single artifact: a glass capillary tube containing smallpox vaccine manufactured Toronto circa 1939, and all of the hopes and fears contained within.

We are pleased to announce that this exhibition’s run has been extended through the summer! All are welcome to come view the exhibition during library opening hours (Monday through Friday, 9:00-5:00) in the Osler Library, 3rd floor, McIntyre Medical Building, 3655 Promenade Sir-William-Osler.

Montréal et l’histoire des débats sur la vaccination à la bibliothèque Osler

« L’épidémie récente de variole à Montréal — la vaccination des passagers américains dans un train du Grand Trunk Railway », par Marvin James, reproduction photomécanique d’une gravure sur bois (1885). Collection d’images de la bibliothèque Osler, OPF000001.

Le 375e anniversaire de Montréal nous donne l’occasion de nous replonger dans le parcours de notre ville, d’explorer son passé et d’en discuter dans le contexte actuel. En plus de mettre en évidence la richesse de nos collections, la nouvelle exposition présentée à la bibliothèque Osler permet d’engager des conversations les concernant à la manière d’Osler lui-même. Sir William Osler a construit cette riche bibliothèque sur l’histoire de la médecine, non seulement pour l’héritage intellectuel ou la beauté des livres et des objets qui s’y trouvent, mais aussi parce qu’il croyait que le passé fait partie de notre vie de tous les jours. « [traduction] Le passé, écrivait Osler dans son célèbre discours, Aequanimitas, fait toujours partie de nous et nous ne pouvons y échapper; c’est le seul qui résiste à l’épreuve du temps. »

Notre nouvelle exposition, « Vaccination : Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998 », offre des exemples de controverses autour de la vaccination, qui faisaient rage dans la région à l’époque, en vue de permettre aux visiteurs de comprendre la peur et l’hésitation qui régnaient à son égard. Les conservateurs Rob Boddice de la Freie Universitat de Berlin et Cynthia Tang, candidate au doctorat au département des Sciences sociales en médecine et au département de l’Histoire et études classiques, présentent le raisonnement des personnes qui étaient en faveur de la vaccination et de celles qui s’y opposaient au cours des 200 ans qui ont suivi la découverte de la vaccination par Edward Jenner.

Portrait d’Edward Jenner par gravure au pointillé réalisé par Mackenzie (Londres : T. Hurst, 1802). Collection d’images de la bibliothèque Osler, OP000643.

En 1798, Jenner, un médecin d’Angleterre qui pratiquait en région rurale, a publié les résultats de ses expériences sur l’utilisation de matières extraites de pustules contenant le virus de la vaccine pour inoculer les patients contre la variole, qui a longtemps été endémique dans les villes industrialisées comme Montréal. Cette méthode, que Jenner a nommée vaccination, a été rapidement adoptée et généralisée comme mesure de santé publique, et des fioles de vaccin antivariolique ont été expédiées et distribuées dans le monde entier. Toutefois, les avantages et les résultats prometteurs de la vaccination ont dès le début fait l’objet d’une controverse. Déjà, au début du 19e siècle, la publication de brochures et d’images suscitait dans la population des inquiétudes liées à l’introduction de matière animale et d’agents pathogènes dans le corps. Même après l’annonce de l’Organisation mondiale de la santé en 1980, selon laquelle la variole avait été éradiquée, les débats publics amorcés au 19e siècle autour de la vaccination se sont poursuivis.

Tube capillaire contenant le vaccin antivariolique (Toronto, vers 1939). Technologie médicale, Musée des sciences et de la technologie du Canada, nº d’artefact : 2002.0101.

Dans le cadre de l’exposition, une présentation publique a été dirigée par un groupe d’experts à laquelle ont été conviés les membres de la collectivité de McGill et de Montréal. Cette initiative a porté les participants à réfléchir sur ces exemples passés de l’hésitation autour de la vaccination et à faire le lien avec les préoccupations et mythes sur la vaccination qui perdurent encore aujourd’hui. Les deux conservateurs étaient accompagnés des chercheurs Andrea Kitta (East Carolina University), une folkloriste spécialiste de la médecine, des croyances et du surnaturel, qui s’intéresse particulièrement à la vaccination, et feu Mark Wainberg  (Université McGill), directeur du Centre universitaire sur le SIDA de l’Université McGill à l’Hôpital général juif de Montréal et critique de la rhétorique anti-vaccin. La présentation tenue en soirée a permis de dégager une perspective générale et multidisciplinaire. Le billet de blogue « Hope and Fear in a Glass Capillary: Connecting over the History of Medicine with the Osler Library » ([traduction] Espoir et peur dans une fiole de verre — Retracer l’histoire de la vaccination en compagnie de la Bibliothèque Osler), publié par la conservatrice Cynthia Tang pour le Musée des sciences et de la technologie du Canada, témoigne des partenariats interorganisationnels établis pour l’exposition et l’événement. Son bloque porte sur un seul objet : une fiole de verre contenant le vaccin contre la variole fabriqué à Toronto vers 1939, et tous les espoirs et les peurs qu’elle suscitait.

Nous sommes heureux d’annoncer que cette exposition se poursuivra durant l’été! Vous êtes tous invités à venir voir l’exposition durant les heures d’ouverture (du lundi au vendredi de 9 h à 17 h) à la bibliothèque Osler, 3e étage de l’édifice McIntyre Medical Sciences, 3655, promenade Sir-William-Osler.


Resurrecting the History of Body-Snatching at McGill

Guest post by Annelise Dowd. Annelise is a McGill University Master of Information Studies student with research interests in the digital humanities, library accessibility, and special collections outreach.


“He told us there were two subjects, and that as you were nervous he’d set you and Jim to work first; that our turn would come. He pointed to a grave; said that’s where would have to work; told us not to begin until he returned, as we might be caught; and that when we heard the whistle we were to run to the gate.”


My Last Experience of Resurrectionning,”

McGill University Gazette,vol. 1, no. 4: January 1, 1874


The Origins of McGill Student Body-Snatching

Anatomy study, McGill medical students, Montreal, QC, 1884. McCord Museum.

In the 1830s, the nascent McGill Medical Faculty was incorporating the practice of dissection as the central method for anatomical instruction. However, even with the introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1843, an act intended to legally require institutions to supply bodies to medical faculties, the city of Montréal failed to donate an adequate number of cadavers. With limited options and little institutionally provided dissection material, McGill medical students quite literally took the issue into their own hands.

Portrait of the McGill “Resurrectionists”

Graduating Class in Medicine, c.1905. McGill Archives.

The McGill University Gazette, McGill’s first newspaper, illustrates the figure of the student body-snatcher, or a more popular term at the time, “resurrectionist.” Medical students resurrected corpses for one of two purposes: for their own anatomical exams, or to supply bodies to their professors, with a reward of $30-$50 per body. For a number of medical students, body-snatching was an efficient, albeit morbid, means to cover one’s tuition.

Body-snatching was often a winter activity, due to the frozen ground preventing the burial of bodies. Until the ground thawed, corpses were stored above ground in cemetery “dead houses,” an easy target for students to forcibly enter and steal bodies. A winter body-snatching trip would typically include hiking to Côte-des-Neiges or Mount Royal cemetery in the dead of night, removing the corpses from their caskets, and tobogganing down the snow-covered slope with their “subjects” in tow.

“The Good Old Days at McGill,” The McGill Daily Vol. 39 No. 001: September 27, 1949

The legal ramifications for body snatching were minor, and the general attitude towards body-snatching amongst the medical student body was openly positive. In fact, students fined in court for body snatching in 1875 were hoisted on the shoulders of a sea of medical students, chanting and singing in encouragement of their classmates’ deeds!

The Continued Legacy of Body-Snatching

In 1883, a strengthened Anatomy Act put greater pressure on institutions to provide bodies to Montréal’s medical schools. In effect, by the twentieth century, any mention of body-snatching had all but disappeared. Yet, as noted in the early issues of The McGill Daily, the legacy of these “brave resurrectionists” lived on in the medical faculty for decades. Annually, students would celebrate “King Cook”, the medical building custodian who assisted students in sneaking unofficially obtained corpses on campus. These celebrations consisted of a parade down Saint Catherine Street and humorous theatrical productions, in which the famed Stephen Leacock was known to partake in.

Medical Building janitor King Cook dressed as John Bull, the patriotic symbol of Great Britain, with medical students, 1918. McGill Archives.

The notoriously rowdy “King Cook Celebration” was documented as last occurring in 1926, and since then the history of the medical student body-snatching has been largely forgotten. Although largely absent from official documents, the remaining first-person accounts reveal this morbid and fascinating period in McGill Faculty of Medicine history.





Hanaway, Joseph, and Richard Cruess. “The Faculty of Medicine: 1874–85: The Osler Years.” McGill Medicine: The First Half Century, 1829-1885, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996, pp. 65–99,

Lawrence, D.G. “Resurrection and Legislation or Body-Snatching in Relation to the Anatomy Act in the Province of Quebec.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 32.5 (1958). Print.

Shepherd, Francis J. Reminiscences of Student Days and Dissecting Room. Montreal: publisher not identified, 1919. Print.

The McGill Student Publications Collection

Worthington, E D. Reminiscences of Student Life and Practice. Sherbrooke [Quebec: Printed for Sherbrooke Protestant Hospital by Walton, 1981.


Vaccination and Its Discontents: Historical and Contemporary Reflections on Vaccination and Vaccine Hesitancy

Want to see what happens when two historians, a folklorist, and virologist come together to discuss vaccination? Please join us for Vaccination and Its Discontents: Historical and Contemporary Reflections on Vaccination and Vaccine Hesitancy, a multidisciplinary discussion panel hosted by the Osler Library for the History of Medicine.

Monday, February 20th, 5:30-7:30PM
3rd Floor McIntyre Medical Building
3655 Promenade Sir-William-Osler
Image of "vaccinating American-bound passengers on a train of the Grand Trunk Railway," by James Marvin, 1885.

“The recent smallpox epidemic in Montreal – vaccinating American-bound passengers on a train of the Grand Trunk Railway,” James Marvin, 1885. Osler Library Prints Collection.

The panel will include:

“Bestiality in a Time of Smallpox: Dr. Jenner and the Modern Chimera,” Rob Boddice, PhD FRHistS (Freie Universität Berlin), Historian of Medicine, Science and Emotions

‘The grease taken from the heels of horses: Collective Memory and Collective Silencing in the History of Vaccination Controversy,” Cynthia Tang, MSc MA (McGill University), PhD student in the History of Medicine

“Vaccination: Legend, Rumour, and Alternative Facts Throughout History,”
Andrea Kitta, PhD (East Carolina University), Folklorist specializing in medicine, belief and the supernatural

“Should vaccination against measles and other infectious agents if proven safe be compulsory?,”
Mark Wainberg, PhD OC OQ FRSC (McGill University), Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre

This panel is being held in promotion of the Osler Library’s current exhibition, Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998, to explore some of the historical and contemporary cases of resistance to vaccination. Vaccination and Its Discontents: Historical and Contemporary Reflections on Vaccination and Vaccine Hesitancy will aim at analysing the character of the fears and doubts of anti-vaccinists, and the successes and failures of vaccination’s proponents in addressing the concerns of their opponents. The contemporary rhetoric surrounding vaccination is implicitly connected to, and draws upon, two centuries of rehearsal. Recognising the essential structure of anti-vaccinist arguments in particular may provide new ways to address them. The panel works towards novel approaches to vaccination controversies, opening up new possibilities for contending with vaccine hesitancy in our own times.


Please join us in this discussion, followed by a wine & cheese reception.


Relevant reading: 
Andrea Kitta and Daniel Goldberg, “The Significance of Folklore for Vaccine Policy: Discarding the Deficit Model,” Critical Public Health (2016).
Rob Boddice, “Vaccination, Fear and Historical Relevance,” History Compass (2016).
Mark Wainberg, PhD OC OQ FRSC (McGill University) Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre

The exhibit, Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998, is open to the public during library hours, Monday-Friday, 9:00-5:00 and runs through the end of April 2017.

Both the exhibit and the speaker panel are co-sponsored by the McGill Faculty of Medicine and the Freie Universität Berlin.

Vernissage for new exhibition, Vaccination: Fear, Fame and Controversy, 1798-1998

Since its earliest days, vaccination has been attended by hesitation, resistance and controversy. Why did an innovation that promised to rid the world of the terrible scourge of smallpox inspire such enduring fear? When Jenner spearheaded the promotion of vaccination at the turn of the nineteenth century, he predicted the end of a disease that had taken 60 million lives in the eighteenth century alone. He was right, but it took until 1980 before the World Health Organization could proclaim “smallpox zero”. This exhibition explores the tension between the promised public-health benefits of vaccination and the reasons why resistance checked its acceptance. It seeks to understand the origins of vaccine hesitancy through various cases, both local and global, and demonstrates the legacy of those cases in contemporary vaccination debates. vffcredhighres

Please join us for a vernissage with wine and cheese for this exhibition, Wednesday, February 1st, 2017, at the Osler Library, 4:30-6:30PM.

Blood of the Vampire at the Osler Library


Poster Vampire

Please join us for a film screening Tuesday, March 8th, of the almost-cult classic BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958), held in conjunction with our latest exhibition, Knowing Blood: Medical Observations, Fluid Meanings.

From Wikipedia:

Transylvania in the 19th century. A young doctor John Pierre (Vincent Ball) and his fiancee Madeleine Duval (Barbara Shelley) are terrorized by Dr. Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) who was executed but has returned to life with a heart transplant. Along with his mute and hunchback assistant Carl (Victor Maddern), who is now fallen in love with Madeleine, the ‘anemic’ mad scientist, believed to be a vampire, conducts blood deficiency research on the inmates of a prison hospital for the criminally insane to sustain his return to life.


Health Art Exhibition: accepting submissions

“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity.” – Hippocrates

pastedImageHealth and illness are universal experiences that can be frightening and disorienting, yet also have the potential to inspire, transform, and heal. Out of this, there arises a need to express, make sense of, and derive personal meaning from what has been experienced. One of these ways is through art.

Artwork is currently being accepted for the Health Art Exhibition, which will be taking place  winter 2016 at the MUHC Glen site hospital, with specific dates to be announced! To submit artwork for the exhibit:

Deadline for submissions: Friday, February 5, 2016. 

For questions and further details, please contact