Holmes, Oliver Wendell
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809 – 1894) was an American physician, poet, professor, lecturer, and author and supporter of equality in education for women and African Americans. He is recognized as the inventor of the word "anesthesia" which he used to describe the then new use of ether during surgery. He was also an extremely important medical reformer and deeply critical of the medical treatments of his day. He once said that if they were tossed into the sea "it would be all the better for mankind—and all the worse for the fishes".
Holmes was an advocate for equality in university education. When he became Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Harvard Medical School, Holmes was criticized by the all-male student body as well as university staff for considering granting admission to a woman named Harriot Kezia Hunt. In the end she was forced to withdraw her application. Harvard Medical School would not admit a woman until 1945. So he lost that battle. Later, Holmes was approached by Martin Delany, an African-American man who requested admission to Harvard after having been previously rejected by four schools despite impressive credentials. Holmes admitted Delany and two other black men to the Medical School, but their admission sparked a student statement, which read: "Resolved: That we have no objection to the education and evaluation of blacks but do decidedly remonstrate against their presence in College with us." He eventually lost this battle too.
But others he won.
Holmes was educated at Phillips Academy and Harvard College. During his medical studies, Holmes became dismayed by the "painful and repulsive aspects" of primitive medical treatment of the time—which included practices such as bloodletting and blistering and vowed to do something about it.
In 1833, he traveled to Paris to further his medical studies. At the hospital of La Pitié, he studied under pathologist Pierre Charles Alexandre Louis, who demonstrated the ineffectiveness of bloodletting. Dr. Louis was one of the developers of the méthode expectante, a therapeutic doctrine that states the physician's role is to do everything possible to aid nature in the process of disease recovery, and to do nothing to hinder this natural process. Upon his return to Boston, Holmes became one of the country's leading proponents of the méthode expectante and both practised it and taught it.
Holmes was awarded his M.D. from Harvard in 1836. After graduation, he joined the Boston Society for Medical Improvement whose aim was to do what the name implies. He also won the Harvard Medical School's prestigious Boylston Prize, for a paper on the benefits of using the stethoscope, a device with which many American doctors were not familiar.
In 1837, Holmes was appointed to the Boston Dispensary, where he was shocked by the poor hygienic conditions. In an attempt to improve these he and his peers founded the Tremont Medical School where he lectured on pathology, taught the use of microscopes, and supervised dissections of cadavers.
Holmes initially lectured at Dartmouth college. After resigning his professorship at Dartmouth, he composed a series of three lectures dedicated to exposing medical fallacies, or "quackeries". His first lecture was entitled "Astrology and Alchemy" [the symbolism of Alchemy was being literally interpreted at the time which is why people were given mercury preparations] and his second "Medical Delusions of the Past".
In 1843, Holmes published "The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever" . The essay argued that the cause of puerperal fever, a deadly infection contracted by women during or shortly after childbirth, stems from patient to patient contact via their physicians.
Holmes gathered a large collection of evidence for this theory, including stories of doctors who had become ill and died after performing autopsies on patients who had likewise been infected.
In concluding his case, he insisted that a physician in whose practice even one case of puerperal fever had occurred, had a moral obligation to purify his instruments, burn the clothing he had worn while assisting in the fatal delivery, and cease obstetric practice for a period of at least six months.
Holmes eventually came under attack by two distinguished professors of obstetrics—Hugh L. Hodge and Charles D. Meigs—who adamantly denied his theory of contagion. In 1855, Holmes republished the essay with an introduction which said: "I had rather rescue one mother from being poisoned by her attendant, than claim to have saved forty out of fifty patients to whom I had carried the disease....I beg to be heard on behalf of the women whose lives are at stake, until some stronger voice shall plead for them."
As such his medical reform attempts were extremely influential and he made great headway in turning the tide a little in the right direction.
What of his literary achievements? Holmes wrote poems from early childhood, but in 1830, after a misguided attempt to study law, he began writing poetry in greater volume. Before the end of the year, he had produced over fifty poems, four of these poems would ultimately become among his best-known: "The Dorchester Giant", "Reflections of a Proud Pedestrian", "Evening / By a Tailor" and "The Height of the Ridiculous". He also wrote 'Last Leaf'.
Holmes also wrote a number of novels, The Guardian Angel, Elsie Venner, The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, The Autocrat, a biography of John Lothrop Motley, a book dedicated to the life and works of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and his last novel, A Mortal Antipathy. Holmes used his novels to explore moral arguments and to expound medical advice in a homely and humorous approachable style veiled in fiction – modern myth. The Guardian Angel, for example, explores mental health and repressed memory. Holmes showed a fascination for the unconscious mind in his novels and poems. A Mortal Antipathy depicts a character whose phobias are rooted in psychological trauma.
Holmes retired from Harvard in 1882 and continued writing poetry, novels and essays until his death in 1894.
Where did Holmes get his inspiration? There was possibly a small contribution from inherited genes. Holmes was the first son of Abiel Holmes a minister of the First Congregational Church. Having said this the genes may have been passed on but the teachings were rejected, Holmes formed his own moral philosophy and expounded it in his books.
But there is perhaps a more influential cause; from a young age, Holmes suffered from asthma.
Later in his life his poetry appears to have also been inspired by the creation of a 'safe house'. His wife, Fanny Holmes inherited $2,000 in 1848, and she and Oliver used the money to build a summer house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Beginning in July 1849, the family spent "seven blessed summers" there. Holmes said he had "a most intense, passionate fondness for trees in general, and have had several romantic attachments to certain trees in particular". So we can also add Communing with Nature.
In 1886, his wife of more than forty years, who had struggled with an illness that had kept her an invalid for months, died. His daughter Amelia died the following year after a brief malady. Despite his weakening eyesight Holmes found solace in writing. He published Over the Teacups in 1891.
Holmes, despite his early asthma, outlived most of his friends, including Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He died quietly after falling asleep in the afternoon of Sunday, October 7, 1894. His son Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote, "His death was as peaceful as one could wish for those one loves. He simply ceased to breathe."
King's Chapel in Boston erected an inscribed memorial tablet in his honor. "Teacher of Anatomy, Essayist and Poet" and a quote from Horace's Ars Poetica: Miscuit Utile Dulci: "He mingled the useful with the pleasant."
The pictures I have chosen to illustrate the poems are by Teagan White.
Teagan is a freelance designer and illustrator from Chicago, now living and working in Minnesota, where she earned her BFA in Illustration from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design in 2012.
Teagan "explores nature’s subtleties and relationships between living things, using flat, limited colors, decorative arrangements of organic forms, and obsessive detail". She says:
"Nothing is better than following tangled animal paths through forest and field, squishing along reedy riverbanks, attempting to befriend gulls on rocky lakeshores, picking wildflowers, and collecting animal bones.”
She is fascinated by mortality. With her love of nature has come an appreciation for the way that living things are disposed of after death with such grace and efficiency. So much so, that it’s puzzling to her why so many people fear death. Teagan’s recent work explores decomposition and life cycles in general with the hope that her reverence for the subjects might rub off a bit on the viewers.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell - A familiar letter
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell - A Parody on “A Psalm of Life”
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell - Cacoethes Scribendi
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell - On Ether
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell - Sun and shadow
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell - The Boys
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell - The chambered nautilus
- Holmes, Oliver Wendell - The Last leaf