Oliver Wendell Holmes

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(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111205148-Holmes.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2,649 words.)