Truly an American Renaissance Man, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1809. A precocious boy, he was educated at Phillips Academy, Harvard College and (after studying law for a time) received his medical training in Paris. Back in the States, he taught in the medical schools of Dartmouth and Harvard, eventually becoming the dean of the latter. Holmes developed and promoted new medical ideas including the dangers of doctors transferring Puerperal Fever (a condition which killed many new mothers after childbirth) from patient to patient. He also championed the use of the stethoscope, a device previously unfamiliar to most doctors.
He was also a prolific—and highly-respected—poet and author. He began writing as a boy and continued to do so throughout his life. In 1830, upon learning that the U.S. Navy was to dismantle the great ship U.S.S. Constitution, he wrote the poem “Old Ironsides” which was published in his hometown of Boston—as well as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.—which brought the 21 year old nation-wide prominence. His poem saved the storied 18th century frigate, named by President Washington himself, and she can still be seen today. Today she is the oldest still-commissioned warship in the world.
Holmes wrote frequently for The Atlantic Monthly and, in fact, he named the magazine. He was surrounded by and befriended the great writers of his day and was considered one of the best amongst them.
Holmes had three children. His eldest, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a Civil War officer and, later, a Supreme Court Justice appointed by Theodore Roosevelt. He remains one of the most-cited justices in the court’s history.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. died in 1894 and is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
The bookends pictured above, made by Bradley & Hubbard in the 1920’s or 1930’s, commemorate the great intellectual—a man who contributed much to American science and letters. Please click on the photo to learn more about them.