On this day: Oliver Wendell Holmes

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day in 1809, Oliver Wendell Holmes was born.

"The twenty-ninth day of August, in the year eighteen hundred and nine, was Commencement Day in a double sense in the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts; for on that day of smiles and greetings, — the merriest of all the year, the day of the graduating festival of Harvard College, — the Rev. Dr. Abiel Holmes entered in his little almanac the memorandum, 'Son b.,' at the same time sprinkling over the writing a few grains of sand, which still glisten upon the page just as they did when he closed the book, seventy-four years ago."

--Oliver Wendell Holmes: Poet, Littérateur, Scientist, by William Sloane Kennedy, Boston, 1883, page 11.

See page 92 for Holmes's description of Harvard Commencements in his youth. He graduated with the Class of '29. He wrote one of his most famous poems, "The Boys", for their thirtieth reunion.

After graduation, Holmes studied law at Harvard for a year but gave it up. In September, 1830, at the age of 21, he read a newspaper article about the decision to scrap the frigate Constitution. He wrote "Old Ironsides" in protest. (Notice Holmes's notes at the bottom of the page.) The poem made him famous and saved the ship. Today she is the world's oldest commissioned ship still afloat.

A few months later, Holmes wrote "The Last Leaf", one of his most beloved poems. (Notice Holmes's History of the Poem at the bottom with a note about Abraham Lincoln. See page 110 in the Kennedy book, linked above, for an anecdote about Lincoln's love of the poem.)

In my old high school textbook, Prose and Poetry of America: Catholic Edition, which falls open at "The Last Leaf", there's an illustration of Major Thomas Melville in his tri-cornered hat and buckled shoes, stooped over his cane, an old man who was young once, handsome and strong, an "Indian" at the Boston Tea Party. "As you read the poem, watch your feelings," says the introduction.

Oliver Wendell Holmes studied medicine at Harvard and in Paris. Upon his return to the United States, he taught at Dartmouth for two years, and then returned to Boston and began the practice of medicine. In 1840, he married Amelia Lee Jackson. The oldest of their three children, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., would be a Supreme Court Justice

In 1843, Dr. Holmes's article on The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever appeared in The New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine. It was ridiculed by other doctors who refused to believe their dirty hands caused the death of so many women at childbirth. Click here for the Wikipedia article on Puerperal Fever, and scroll down half way for Holmes's contribution to the reduction of this scourge.

In 1847, Holmes began teaching anatomy at Harvard Medical School, which he would do for the next 35 years. At the same time, he continued writing poetry, humorous essays, biography, fiction, medical articles.

In 1858, he published "The Deacon's Masterpiece", the poem also known as "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay", which many schoolchildren would memorize.

Oliver Wendell Holmes died on October 7, 1894, at the age of 85, another last leaf.

Click here for the excellent Wikipedia article on Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Click here for Oliver Wendell Holmes: Physician and Man of Letters, edited by Scott Harris Podolsky and Charles S. Bryan, Science History Publications, 2009, a collection of essays published for the bicentennial of Holmes's birth.

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