Dr. William Osler stood in the room full of bones.
It was late spring, 1884. In Berlin to see his former teacher Dr. Rudolf Virchow, Osler seemed in awe of his exclusive surroundings.
While outside the city groaned and clanged under a relentless surge of railroad building, Osler took in the great pathologist’s private collection of human remains.
He had made sure to bring an offering.
“I took with me four choice examples of skulls of British Columbian Indians, knowing well how acceptable they would be,” Osler later wrote.
His written recollections were part travel journal, part proud boast of his orbit around one of the greatest doctors in the world.
How it was read 130 years later by two other doctors, was very different.
In the fall of 2018, they started a hunt for the skulls that would span two continents and eventually include the Star alongside German media partners Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR and WDR.
The search ended in Berlin a few weeks ago.
But not before it re-awakened the dormant skills of a Six Nations man named Rick Hill.
For years Hill worked to repatriate Indigenous remains. He called himself an undertaker. The work burdened him with grief. It had drained him.
When he saw what the search turned up in a German museum, Hill came out of retirement for one more case.
What Osler wrote mattered.
When he went to Berlin, he was nearly 35 years old and a soaring star in medicine. His soon-to-be-published “The Principles and Practice of Medicine” would remain the standard clinical text for decades.
Born in Bond Head, a hamlet north of Toronto, he would serve as chief physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he helped popularize bedside teaching, then as the Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, which at the time was the most prestigious medical appointment in the English-speaking world.
What Osler wrote still matters.
Medical conditions and diseases are named after him. Hospitals in the GTA, a medical library in Montreal, university buildings in England and India, and elementary schools from Vancouver to Hamilton, are named after him.
It was Osler, according to a journal article co-authored by Toronto doctor Nav Persaud, who wrote, “I hate Latin Americans.” In a speech, Osler said, “What are we to do when the yellow and brown men begin to swarm over” to Canada, which he considered “a White man’s country.”
Osler defenders criticized the article, saying it nitpicked some ill-chosen words made in private and ignored Osler’s noble actions.
Persaud’s article, which argues that medical school lectures lionize Osler and whitewash his legacy, also briefly mentioned the four Indigenous skulls Osler gave to Virchow.
Persaud, raised near Keele Street and Wilson Avenue and educated at the University of Toronto and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, has a laser-guided conscience.
While a medical student at U of T, he asked for a meeting with professors to point out that a pain management course included a book provided free to students and that was paid for by Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin. His approach was spurned as impertinent. He persisted. Eventually U of T dropped the book and a lecturer with financial ties to Purdue, then the university strengthened its conflict-of-interest guidelines.
Persaud first heard of the skulls in 2018 from Dr. Philip Berger, a mentor whom Persaud trained under at St. Michael’s Hospital.
A semi-retired physician, Berger, recently sat on the governing council of Ontario’s doctor regulator, the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
He is also a troublemaker. He occupied politicians’ offices and marched in protests to fight for healthcare for refugees. He once yelled “Go back to Ottawa!” to a federal cabinet minister making a speech on stage in Nathan Phillips Square. As he was led away by security, an incredulous journalist asked him and his colleagues, “Are you real doctors?”
When he heard from a Israeli colleague about Osler’s gift to Virchow, Berger recalls thinking: “William Osler is a deity in medicine. He is an icon of heroic proportions in Canada. Osler was viewed as a humanitarian, and humanitarians don’t go giving skulls as gift to a colleague.”
Berger told Persaud he wanted to find the remains. He wanted to know how the skulls were taken from their original resting ground. And who took them. And did they ask permission.
In the late summer of that year, a debate raged about whether to remove a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, as a harsh light shone on his treatment of Indigenous and Asian people. The country seemed primed to take second looks at symbols of Canada’s past glory.
“Osler was very well read. He would have been aware…that Indigenous rights were… front page news,” Persaud said. “This was the time of numbered treaties. It was the time of Louis Riel. It was a time when Indigenous people were fighting for their land, fighting for their lives.
“He did not decide to go to Mount Pleasant Cemetery and take remains of white people to Germany as a present. What he did decide to do is take remains of Indigenous people to Germany as a present to a physician he admired.”
Persaud told his mentor he wanted to help him find the skulls given away by the father of modern medicine.
In 1884 Vichow kept his collected remains in his private rooms, which Osler likened to “Gehenna” — a destination of the wicked, according to some Biblical interpretations.
The two Toronto doctors started to search for where they could be now.
The Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte (BGAEU), an anthropological society co-founded by Virchow in 1869, controls the famous pathologist’s skull collection.
As far as Berger and Persaud could tell, the BGAEU building was a facility for researchers, not a gallery displaying bones and artifacts.
They emailed Bernard Heeb, then the treasurer and a board member of BGAEU, asking if there was documentation confirming the skull transfer to Virchow and whether the society still had the remains.
Policies and papers have been written in contemplation of whether and when European museums should repatriate looted objects and remains to their cultures of origin.
In 2013, the German Museum Association said human remains should be carefully documented and catalogued. Transparency was recommended. So was the prompt and respectful response to inquiries. The head of BGAEU at the time was one of the signatories of the position paper.
The Toronto doctors thought the anthropological society would, when convenient, confirm whether it had the skulls and report back. If the search turned up any solid leads, the two would pass that information to the impacted Indigenous community.
They were brushed off.
In an email exchange that started in November 2018, Heeb and an anthropologist who manages the Virchow collection in a part-time role told the Toronto doctors there are no records connected to Osler but that they would take a deeper look.
The anthropologist, Barbara Tessmann, also asked to know the research purpose of the inquiry. The Toronto doctors repeated their aim and asked what if any studies the skulls had been used for and where they are now.
“They weren’t the least bit interested in providing any information about locating the skulls,” Berger said.
Nearly two months passed. Persaud emailed them again, asking if they intended to provide a response. There was none.
The Toronto doctors approached the Star.
Lou-ann Neel, a specialist in the repatriation of Indigneous artifacts at the Royal B.C. Museum; Dr. Evan Adams, an Indigenous medical leader and a member of Tla’amin (Sliammon) First Nation; and Jody Wilson-Raybould, formerly Canada’s attorney general and a former regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, all supported the continued search for the skulls.
So did Osler’s great-great-great-grand-niece-in-law, Dr. Gigi Osler, a surgeon and former head of the Canadian Medical Association. “The skulls are human remains and are somebody’s ancestors,” the Winnipeg doctor said. “While I cannot speak on behalf of the entire Osler family, I believe that the respectful and culturally appropriate thing to do, should the museum have the skulls, would be to repatriate and return them.”
In February, about a year after Persaud’s and Berger’s pursuit hit a dead end, Berlin-based journalist Markus Grill, working with the Star, attended a lecture on colonial artifacts, followed by wine and pretzels, hosted by BGAEU. Heeb was in attendance. He said the society faced many inquiries about remains, but he would revisit the request.
Weeks later, an invitation arrived, welcoming Grill to search the archives for any trace of Osler’s gifted skulls.
After Osler left Berlin, crossing the Atlantic again to become an Ivy League professor, the city kept bustling. European leaders gathered at German government headquarters on Wilhelmstrasse in the fall of 1884 to manage their ongoing colonization efforts in what is known as the Scramble for Africa. No Africans were invited to take part.
Virchow continued teaching and collecting human remains. Two skeletons of teenagers from the Aleutian Islands and the skull of an “Eskimo” man found on Blacklead Island, outside a grave, frozen in the marshland.
On the day Osler gave the four skulls to his former teacher, two crates of skeletons arrived, from an island off the coast of northwest Africa.
Virchow moved closer to Osler. The thin, bespectacled pathologist zeroed in and rapidly sketched “the cranial characters of the North American Indian,” Osler recalled.
It doesn’t appear either Osler or Virchow knew to whom the four skulls belonged, or even where precisely they originated.
Documents unearthed by the Star and its German media partners indicate that Osler’s “four choice examples of skulls of British Columbian Indians” were not from the west coast.
At least two of them were taken from sacred ground 3,000 km to the east, where a man who calls himself “an undertaker” is now fighting to have them returned.
Tomorrow: Part Two of the series, about a man’s mission to bring home the missing skulls of his ancestors