Oliver Wendell Holmes

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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...

(This entire section contains 1905 words.)

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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 hisMedical Essays, 1842-1882 (1863).

In 1847 Holmes became a professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard Medical School, a position he held for thirty-five years. This vocation released Holmes from the suffering of the actual sickroom while satisfying his thirst for knowledge in his area of fascination, anatomy. Holmes, ever the wit and entertainer, also enjoyed the opportunity to inform and amuse his audience at the same time. The Harvard medical student’s schedule at this time was grueling. Students were expected to sit for rigorous lectures from 9:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. daily, with no break for rest or refreshment. Holmes was specifically assigned the 1:00 P.M. lecture because of his outstanding ability to hold the exhausted students’ attention. While he was very serious about presenting information clearly and simply, Holmes nevertheless interjected the occasional anecdote and pun. In addition to his fame as a medical essayist and professor, he lectured extensively outside the college venue and championed such advances in medicine as the use of stethoscopes, microscopes, and anesthesia.

Running parallel with Holmes’s distinguished medical career were his accomplishments as a writer. Holmes often commented that he would rather be remembered as a poet than as any other thing. One of his most famous poems, “Old Ironsides,” was penned in 1830 directly after his graduation from Harvard. Holmes had read in the newspaper that the Navy Department intended to destroy the Constitution, a historic warship nicknamed “Old Ironsides.” Holmes quickly composed his poem and mailed it to a Boston newspaper, where the poem was printed. The popular reaction to the poem’s plea not to “tear her tattered ensign down!” was so strong that the ship was preserved. The noble verses in “Old Ironsides” were no doubt partially the result of Holmes’s love as a youth for Alexander Pope’s poetical translations of Homer’s heroic Iliad and Odyssey.

Holmes had dabbled in writing poems from his youth, but he was not proud of most of these early attempts. As a student at Harvard, he and his companions entertained themselves and others with light, humorous verses for assorted events. In 1836, after graduating from medical school, Holmes published his first collection of poetry called Poems. This volume contained “Old Ironsides” and “The Last Leaf,” which rivals “Old Ironsides” in fame, largely because of his contemporary readers’ reaction to it. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a copy of the poem in his own handwriting, and Abraham Lincoln quoted it from memory at a public event. Hundreds of readers less renowned have loved it.

Probably more significant than Holmes’s serious poetical efforts were his poems that fell into the category of light verse. Such poems as “My Aunt” and “The Height of the Ridiculous” demonstrated the apt descriptions and humor that led many people to call upon Holmes to compose poems. For fifty years, he was invited to write poems for significant occasions around Boston by medical societies, universities, clubs, and other organizations. While light verse is often seen as casual and easy, it can be very demanding. Holmes was accommodating and prolific, and the quality of his poems is affirmed by their contemporary popularity as well as their survival. While literary critics largely agree that Holmes was not someone who possessed poetic genius, he is considered the master of a type of poetry that is clear, graceful, unsentimental, and often humorous.

In 1857, James Russell Lowell, a poet and social reformer, had been hired as the editor of a new literary magazine. Lowell insisted that Holmes be the magazine’s first and regular contributor. Holmes originally declined the offer because he had written very little creative nonfiction before, and, at the age of forty-seven, he considered himself too old to be truly creative. Lowell persisted, and Holmes agreed to contribute, beginning by naming the new magazine The Atlantic. The nonfiction essays that Holmes composed serially for the magazine were eventually collected in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858), which most critics agree established him as a genius.

The autocrat in Holmes’s essays was an imaginary figure who lived in a boarding house and conversed with and about his imaginary fellow boarders around the breakfast table. While this structure that surrounds the essays is fiction, the thoughts and ideas expressed in the essays genuinely belong to Holmes. The essays are reflective, thought provoking, sophisticated, and humorous. They comment insightfully on Holmes’s contemporaries and nineteenth century New England, as well as on human nature in general. These “conversations” of literature continued to appear in The Atlantic, and additional volumes were eventually published: The Professor of the Breakfast-Table (1860), The Poet of the Breakfast-Table (1872), and Over the Teacups (1891). The Atlantic’s longevity has largely been attributed to the popularity of Holmes’s essay series.

Holmes also wrote three novels, Elsie Venner (1861), The Guardian Angel (1867), and A Mortal Antipathy (1885), which are not well respected for their literary technique. However, the novels are considered entertaining and influential because they pioneered the importance of the characters’ psychology and hereditary traits in determining their actions and moral choices.


Oliver Wendell Holmes has come to be representative of the type of high-quality citizen that American society and culture can produce. Typically associated with the New England renaissance of his day, he exemplified the power and value of original thought tempered with a respectful conservatism and compassion. Possibly one of the most illustrative examples of Holmes’s best characteristics was his famous attitude toward the controversial issue of allowing women into Harvard Medical School to be trained as doctors. Holmes was essentially a conservative product of his society who believed in the importance of good taste and structure. He originally voted against women’s admission, arguing that women’s basic natures made them the best nurses. Shortly thereafter, in a speech to a Harvard audience, he turned on his own argument and reasoned that if a woman wanted to work hard and help others as a doctor, she should be allowed to. This example was typical of Holmes’s clear-headed logic coupled with the compassion for which he was well known.


Crothers, Samuel McChord. Oliver Wendell Holmes: The Autocrat and His Fellow-Boarders, with Selected Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909. Brief, very useful summation of the generally accepted attitudes about Holmes’s personality and works. Includes all of Holmes’s most famous poems.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. Oliver Wendell Holmes: Representative Selections. Edited by S. I. Hayakawa and H. M. Jones. New York: American Book Company, 1939. The literary criticism of Holmes’s work found in the introduction to this source is insightful and is often referred to by other critics and biographers.

Hoyt, Edwin P. The Improper Bostonian, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1979. This well-researched and accessible book contains valuable and entertaining anecdotes.

Morse, Jr., John T. Life and Letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Volumes I and II. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896. Considered the definitive Holmes biography, particularly valuable because the author knew Holmes and many of his contemporaries personally. Morse’s colorful writing style is not unlike Holmes’s own.

Tilton, Eleanor M. Amiable Autocrat, A Biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Henry Schuman, 1947. Extremely well documented, enjoyable biography with valuable critiques of Holmes’s writing.


Critical Essays