Profile of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
An intellectual triple threat as doctor, speaker and author, Oliver Wendell Holmes was a leading citizen of 19th-century Boston. He graduated from Harvard in 1829 and first came to prominence the next year, when his patriotic poem "Old Ironsides" helped prevent the scrapping of the historic battleship U.S.S. Constitution. ("Aye, tear her tattered ensign down!" is the poem's opening command.) Holmes studied medicine in Paris, then returned to Harvard and earned his M.D. in 1836. At the early age of 33 he became the first dean of Harvard Medical School and from 1847 until 1882 he was a popular professor of physiology and anatomy; his research produced a groundbreaking 1843 paper on "The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever." He also became a highly-regarded public speaker at Boston affairs of all sorts. Beyond that, he published many volumes of writings and essays throughout his life, starting with Poems in 1836. In 1858 he helped found the magazine Atlantic Monthly, and for many years he wrote the magazine's popular feature "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," whose protagonist held forth at an imaginary Boston boarding house, dishing up witty opinions on an endless variety of subjects. These essays were eventually collected in a series of books, including The Professor at the Breakfast Table and The Poet at the Breakfast Table. Holmes also wrote a popular biography of his Boston contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson. His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902-32.
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