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Commentary
September 24, 2001

William Osler and The Fixed PeriodConflicting Medical and Popular Ideas About Old Age

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(17):2074-2078. doi:10.1001/archinte.161.17.2074
Abstract

William Osler (1849-1919) has long been hailed as one of the most illustrious physicians in our history. Yet, Osler's claim to fame outside the medical profession in the early 20th century was through what became known as The Fixed Period controversy about the usefulness of old men. In 1905, as the 55-year-old Osler said farewell to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine before leaving for Oxford University in England he remarked that men older than 60 years should be retired. He further mentioned a suggestion, which he attributed to Anthony Trollope's novel The Fixed Period, that men older than that age be chloroformed. This article explores the public reaction to Osler in the context of early 20th-century American ideas about old age and manhood. As our society has changed over the past century, so have our ideas about old age. The Fixed Period incident offers us an opportunity to explore the relationship between medical and popular ideas about old age. This historical perspective allows us to see that physicians have not always had authority over old age and that public understanding and medical pronouncements on old age do not necessarily match.

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