Learn To Listen Intently

I waited for you to speak. I listened to your thoughts as you searched for words. I gave you my full attention.  

Job 32:11-12              

 William Osler (pronounced “OH – sler”) is one of the most influential physicians in history, but few – apart from the medical community – know him.  

He is called the “Father of modern medicine,” and for good reason. He was one of the “Big Four” founding professors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He created the first residency program. In England he was knighted for his medical achievements.  


Osler was obsessed with paying careful attention to the little things. When he served as medical professor at Oxford University, he lectured his students – stressing the vital importance of paying attention to details. Careful observation, he told them, was the key to accurate diagnosis of a patient’s ailment.  

A diabetic’s urine, Osler pointed out, often had sugar in it. The professor then displayed a bottle of urine, dipped his finger into the bottle, and brought his hand to his mouth to taste the urine. Passing the bottle around the room, he asked the students to do what he had just done.   

The students dutifully participated in the unpleasant task – knowing that if they paid careful attention, they might taste the sugar in the urine. After the student’s had finished their exercise, Osler said, “Now you will understand what I mean when I speak about details, because had you really been watching, you would have seen that I put my index finger into the urine . . . but my middle finger into my mouth.”  


Today, any licensed doctor must first serve a residency under a supervising physician. But Sir William Osler was the first physician to establish the practice. He was adamant about the need for academic study, but even more passionate about spending time with the patient, and listening patiently to them. 

“He who studies medicine without books,” he said, “sails an uncharted sea. But he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.” Osler was the first to drag his students out of the lecture hall for bedside clinical training.  

The only epitaph Osler wanted on his tombstone was that he took his students to be with patients at their bedside.  


Osler originally wanted to become a pastor, but I’m glad that God led him into medicine. Yet, oddly enough, he brings us a spiritual message. First, you learn to pay attention to your teacher (and note which finger he sticks in the urine bottle!), and then you learn to listen intently to those you seek to serve.  

I was taught to learn theology, and then to give the world a canned speech. William Osler has reminded me that yes – I should begin by learning, by paying attention to my Teacher. But, then, it’s better to take time to listen carefully to those who are hurting. The more I learn to listen; the more I’ll have something worth saying.  

(text copyright 2012 by Marty Kaarre)