Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Contributions: Holmes was an American doctor and teacher of medicine who helped pioneer many new medical techniques, including the use of microscopes and anesthesia. He was also a poet and essayist whose writings were dominated by wit and inventiveness.
Oliver Wendell Holmes was born into a kind of New England aristocracy that he later called the Brahmin caste. His home atmosphere was a mixture of solid Puritanism dictated by his father, Abiel Holmes, a Congregationalist minister, and more liberal thought contributed by his mother, Sarah Wendell, the daughter of a successful Boston merchant with high social connections. Holmes received his early education fairly uneventfully in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his scholasticism was termed average and where he was frequently punished for talking and whispering. This small fact foreshadowed his adult role as one of the premier lecturers, conversationalists, and wits of his day.
Also significant from his childhood years was his fear of being visited by doctors. Of small, frail stature both as a child and as an adult, Holmes also suffered from asthma. The misery brought on by these early doctors’ visits may partially account for his lifelong discomfort with private medical practice, attributed to an oversensitivity to the patients’ suffering.
Central to his beliefs as an adult were his early childhood revolts against the Puritan religious orthodoxy prevalent in his home and community. Holmes’s father, while educated in the strictest Calvinist traditions, was a compassionate man and an occasional writer of poetry who apparently had some difficulty enforcing many of the unforgiving orthodox doctrines among his family. Holmes primarily rebelled against such inhumane religious beliefs as original sin—the idea that even an unbaptized baby who dies in infancy is guilty and unforgiven because of the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden.
At the age of fifteen, Holmes boarded at Andover School for one year in preparation for his entrance into Harvard. Holmes entered Harvard in 1825 and graduated with the celebrated class of 1829. Upon his graduation, Holmes was not sure what profession to adopt and studied law for one year. Discovering that law was not his calling, he later encouraged his eldest son, who succeeded brilliantly as a United States Supreme Court justice, to enter the profession. Holmes then entered medical school, where one of his first-year professors identified Holmes’s true spark as a medical man. While at first repelled by hospital wards and operating rooms, in which the use of anesthesia was rare, Holmes quickly became fascinated by anatomy. After two years of medical studies in Boston, Massachusetts, Holmes finished his studies in Paris, France. His choice of medicine as his permanent profession was cemented by these two years in France, where he attended lectures by the greatest and most progressive medical minds of his time.
During the ten years after Holmes graduated from medical school (1836-1846), he set up private practice in Boston, got married, and fathered three children. Holmes’s wife, Amelia Jackson, has been described as his ideal mate. She was industrious and devoted and managed Holmes’s affairs in an efficient manner that allowed him to apply himself to his profession and varied interests.
It was also during this period that Holmes wrote the medical essays on which his honorable reputation as a medical researcher is based. The most valuable and famous essay was “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever.” Puerperal fever was an infection of the lining of the uterus that afflicted and killed many new mothers. Holmes argued that the infection was actually carried from patient to patient unknowingly by the attending physicians. This idea was extremely unpopular among the medical community, and Holmes’s paper was viciously attacked. However, Holmes’s theory was indeed true, and the medical community eventually came to accept it. While Holmes did not originate the contagiousness theory, it is believed that his essay was instrumental in getting doctors to accept and treat the real cause. The essay was meticulously prepared and argued, and one can argue that it was the calm and professional manner in which Holmes handled his critics that actually gave force to his position. Holmes researched and published other influential medical papers, which were collected in his Medical Essays, 1842-1882 (1863).
In 1847 Holmes became a professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard Medical School, a position he held for...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Oliver Wendell Holmes was born on August 29, 1809, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a town that had already become established as a major American cultural center by virtue of Harvard College and nearby Boston—“the hub of the solar system,” as Holmes would note only half jokingly in Essay VI of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. Holmes’s father, Abiel Holmes, was a Congregational minister in Cambridge who had already established his reputation as a writer with The Annals of America (1805, 1829), generally regarded as the first attempt at an exhaustive compilation of American historical data beginning with 1492. Holmes’s mother, Sarah Wendell, was a descendant of the noted Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet; indeed, like Bradstreet, she was unusually liberal on religious issues, and her son—far from following in the devout footsteps of his clergyman father—had little patience with religious orthodoxy.
From an early age, Holmes was fascinated by natural science, and he is reported to have devoted the playtime of his childhood to analyzing the snails and insects that he found in the family’s garden, but his decision to pursue a career in medicine—which, contrary to popular belief, probably was not because of his passion for driving horse carriages at illegal speeds through the streets of Boston—would not come until much later. After a year (1824-1825) at a Calvinist preparatory school, Phillips Academy at Andover, Holmes entered nearby Harvard College and graduated in 1829 as class poet.
Still undecided as to how best to use his unusual talents, he entered Dane Law School in Cambridge and remained there for one year (1829-1830); he then enrolled at Boston’s Tremont Medical School, which he attended until 1833. This training was followed by two years of intensive study in Paris, a city that in the 1830’s was noted for its superb facilities for medical research and that attracted the brightest medical students in the United States. In 1836, Holmes received his M.D. degree from Harvard and immediately commenced his extraordinary career as a physician, research scientist, and teacher.
In 1836 and 1837, Holmes won three Boylston Prizes for his essays titled “The Nature and Treatment of Neuralgia,” “Facts and Traditions Respecting the Existence of Indigenous Intermittent Fever in New England,” and “The Utility and Importance of Direct Exploration in Medical Practice.” His 1843 essay “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever,” generated widespread controversy in its day, and it was not until 1861 that the Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis confirmed Holmes’s theory that the deadly “childbed fever” was spread by contagion—that, in fact, it was often transmitted by the midwives and physicians who attended births. Holmes also was a...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Oliver Wendell Holmes (hohmz), the last of the great literary Brahmins of the nineteenth century, was in every way a true member of that class that he described in his novel Elsie Venner as “this . . . harmless, inoffensive untitled aristocracy” whose qualities of intellectual leadership “are congenital and hereditary.” He could list among his ancestors on his mother’s side the Phillipses, the Wendells, the Quincys, the Hancocks, and even Anne Bradstreet; his father, the Reverend Abiel Holmes, was descended from a long line of Calvinistic Connecticut divines. His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was for thirty years associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
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