Thinking Citizen Blog — William Osler, “A Way of Life” — an Intriguing Nautical Analogy — “Day Tight Compartments”

Thinking Citizen Blog — Thursday is Health, Health Care, and Global Health Policy Day

Today’s Topic: William Osler, “A Way of Life” — an Intriguing Nautical Analogy — “Day Tight Compartments”

William Osler one of the four founders of Johns Hopkins Medical School is often called the “father of modern medicine.” My sense is that this honorific is largely due to his way with words. He came up with such gems as “the greater the ignorance, the greater the dogmatism.” And “the person who takes medicine must recover twice: once from the disease and once from the medicine.” And “the good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” And “listen to the patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.” This week I learned that Osler gave a famous graduation speech at Yale in 1913, called “A Way of Life.” And that the central metaphor of the speech is that of the water-tight compartments of a ship that keep it afloat. His idea being that you should live your life in “day tight compartments” not worrying about either yesterday or tomorrow. This insight reminded me of basketball coach John Wooden’s advice to “make each day your masterpiece.” It also conjured up for me the image of Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship screaming while the sirens sing and the sailors ears are plugged. What is your favorite nautical analogy?

Today, a few of the quotes that Osler included in his speech plus some commentary by Osler himself. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand.” (Thomas Carlyle)

2. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:34)

3. Osler: “Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting out the Past — the dead Yesterdays. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the Future — the unborn Tomorrows. Then you are safe — safe for today!”

NB: Osler: “Many a man is handicapped in his course by a cursed combination of retrospection and intro-spection, the mistakes of yesterday paralyzing the efforts of today, the worries of the past hugged to his destruction and the worm Regret allowed to canker the very heart of his life.”


1. “In a word habits of any kind are the results of actions of the same kind and so what we have to do is give a certain character to these particular actions.” (Aristotle)

2. Osler: “Lift a seven month old baby to his feet, and watch him stumble on his nose. Do the same at twelve months — he walks. At two years he runs. The muscles and the nervous system have acquired the habit. One trial after another. One failure after another has given him power.”

3. Plutarch: “Character is long standing habit.”

NB: Osler: “Let the dead past bury its dead! So easy to say, so hard to realize! The truth is the past haunts us like a shadow. Those blue eyes of your grandmother and that weak chin of your grandfather have mental and moral counterparts in your make-up.”

LIVING FOR TODAY — the math of it (three to four hours at least per day) — he inspired Dale Carnegie’s “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living”

1. Browning: “There is a world of capability for joy spread round about us, meant for us, inviting us.”

2 .Osler: “Realize that you have sixteen waking hours, three or four of which at least should be devoted to making a silent conquest of your mental machinery.”

3. Osler: “Concentration, by which is grown gradually the power to wrestle with any subject, is the secret of successful study. No mind however dull can escape the brightness that comes from steady application.”

NB: William James: “Neither the nature nor the amount of our work is accountable for the frequency and severity of our breakdowns, but their cause lies rather in the absurd feelings of hurry and having no time…”

FINAL WORDS — Horace, Whitman, Osler

1. Horace: “Happy the man and Happy he alone He who can call his day his own He who secure within can say, Tomorrow do thy worst for I have lived today.”

2. Walt Whitman (Osler was for a while his personal physician): “Ah the glory of the day’s work, whether with hand or brain! I have tried to exalt the present and the real, to teach the average man the glory of his work and trade.”

3. Osler: “The quiet life in day-tight compartments will help you to bear your own and others’ burdens with a light heart.”

A way of life; an address to Yale students Sunday evening, April 20th, 1913 : Osler, William, Sir, 1849–1919 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

William Osler Quotes (Author of A Way of Life)

William Osler — Wikipedia


“The single biggest challenge in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man” (1856)


PDF with headlines — Google Drive


#1 A graphic guide to justice (9 metaphors on one page).

#2 “39 Songs, Prayers, and Poems: the Keys to the Hearts of Seven Billion People” — Adams House Senior Common Room Presentation, 11/17/20


Please share the most interesting thing you learned in the last week related to health, health care or health care policy — the ethics, economics, politics, history…. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to health are or health care policy that the rest of us may have missed. Or just some random health-related fact that blew you away.

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your mind something really important you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than you otherwise would about something that matters.

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