Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr - Biography
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. , M.D., (1809-1894) was an American physician, poet, novelist and essayist. He was also the father of the famous American jurist and Justice of the United Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was known as the Boston Brahmin. Despite his eventual literary fame, Holmes would take a long hiatus from creative writing. Ralph Waldo Emerson would describe Holmes’s later life creative outpouring in the following way: like old pear trees which have done nothing for ten years, and at last begin to grow great."
In 1809, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was the oldest son of a Congregation minister and a woman from a mercantile family. His father was a strict Calvinist, but Holmes would gravitate to Unitarian beliefs in his adult hood. His parent’s moderate wealth allowed Holmes contact with a cultured class and with a wide range of books, including the works of Alexander Pope and Oliver Goldsmith. He would aspire to reach their range of poetic adroitness.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. had some initial education at Cambridge. He continued his education at the Philips Academy at Andover. In 1825, Harvard College admitted him to pursue his higher education. Holmes studied classical languages and literature. After graduating from Harvard, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. spent a year at Dane Law School. Holmes did not devote himself to his study so that he could work on his verse. In retrospect, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr claimed, “The labor which produces an insignificant poem would be enough to master a solid chapter of law…"
In 1830, the Boston Daily Advertiser published Holmes’s poem “Old Ironsides." In this poem, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. protested the proposed decommission of the USS Constitution, a heavy frigate christened by George Washington in 1797. The poem struck a nerve with the patriotic population of the young republic. The strong public reaction prevented the ship’s destruction. It also demonstrates Holmes’s ability to move his audience.
In 1831, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. abandoned his study of law to pursue the study of medicine. He enrolled in the private medical school of Dr. James Jackson. His ultimate goal was to return to Harvard and obtain his M.D. For two years, Holmes also took classes at Harvard. In 1833, Holmes went to Paris to continue his medical training. While in France, he was a dedicated student rarely leaving the hospitals and lecture halls. Shortly after returning to the United States in 1835, Harvard awarded Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. with his M.D. degree.
The year after he received his degree, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. started a private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His practice was never an exceeding financial success. However, the first year of the practice was also a year in which Holmes had an explosion of poetic success. He earned a reputation as a successful poet, which in turn impacted the way people viewed him as a flighty creative professional and not as a somber medical professional.
In response to this view, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. began to work in the academic aspect of the field. For three sessions, the Massachusetts General Hospital employed him in this capacity. In 1838, Holmes was employed by Dartmouth as Professor of Anatomy. His medical research and writing was awarded prizes in both 1836 and 1837. He became an expert on fevers and a fierce adversary of homeopathic treatments. His 1885 treatise Perpetual Fever as a Private Pestilence was considered one of the most important American medical documents of its time.
In 1840, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and Amelia Lee Jackson married. The next year the young couple would have their first child, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. They would also have another son, Edward Jackson Holmes (who also became a lawyer), and a daughter Amelia Jackson Holmes. Holmes was committed to maintaining a peaceful life for his family even when he achieved a certain level of fame.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. returned to Harvard Medical School in 1847 as the Parkman Professor of Anatomy. He would keep this position until 1882. He was a popular teacher whose wit and pathos kept his students rapt. Many students were placed in his class at the end of the day because he alone could keep them from slumber. As much as students appreciated Holmes’s wit, he also understood its power and problematics in relation to other forms of discourse:
[Wit] throws a single ray separated from the rest,—red, yellow, blue, or any intermediated shade,—upon an object; never white light; that is the province of wisdom. We get beautiful effects from wit,—all the prismatic colors—but never the object as it is in fair daylight. A pun, which is a kind of wit, is a different and much shallower trick in mental optics; throwing the shadows of two objects so that on overlies the other. Poetry uses the rainbow tints for special effects, but always keeps its essential object in the purest white light of truth.
Holmes would occasionally travel on lyceum tours. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. made connections with other writers and thinkers in the Boston area. He became the confidante of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell. Around 1857, Lowell, the editor of Atlantic Monthly pushed Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. back into a public literary life. Holmes penned a series of essays called The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. These essays had a conversational tone and became a popular mainstay of the magazine. Many believe it was the popularity of these kept the The Atlantic Monthly solvent during the depression of 1857.
The Atlantic Monthly serialized his novel Elsie Venner, beginning in the closing days of 1859. Though popular in most circles, Holmes’s first novel was condemned by some churches as heretical. Some viewed Elsie Venner as an assault on Calvinism. 1859 was also the year in which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. treated Washington Irving, the author of the famed American short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. After Irving’s death, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. created a scandal by publicly discussing the deceased author’s medical discussion. Despite the scandals, Holmes became famous in Boston.
In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. published an eponymous biography of his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This text would become an essential tool for Emerson’s biographers and scholars. Holmes declared Emerson’s The American Scholar an “intellectual Declaration of Independence." However, Holmes’s involvement with great nineteenth-century, American authors extended to writers whose work he did not support. Most notably Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. contributed $10 toward the purchase of the aging Walt Whitman, who was in danger of becoming a recluse.
In 1886, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. traveled to Europe for the second time. In London, Holmes was celebrated as a great writer. Holmes had wanted to be most well known for his poetry. However, it is essays (especially The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table) are what have been the primary source for his continued fame. It is perhaps in these essays, that Holmes reveals how poetry infiltrates an entire life: “Don’t ever think the poetry is dead in an old man because his forehead is wrinkled, or that his manhood has left hi m when his hand trembles! If they ever were there, they are there still!"