You might be having trouble remembering what Oliver Wendell Holmes did, or even knowing which one we’re talking about! No worries; in this lesson, you’ll become much better acquainted with Holmes the Elder – his passions, his works, and his words.

Dr. Who?: A Brief Biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Have you ever wanted to try your hand at writing but thought ‘I’m a plumber, not a poet,’ or ‘I have a degree in biology, not English?’ Well, whatever your current profession, you should never let it hinder your literary aspirations – Oliver Wendell Holmes certainly never did.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894), American physician, author, and essayist
Photo of Oliver Wendell Holmes

Born 29 August 1809 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Oliver’s life originally didn’t look like that of a writer. Although his father Abiel, a Calvinist clergyman, was also a writer, he apparently wasn’t a very good one, and it seems Oliver got most of his wit and creativity from his mother, Sarah Wendell. After completing his early education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Oliver was accepted into Harvard University (then Harvard College), where he would make some decisions that would change his life forever.

Harvard’s campus in the 1820’s wasn’t too different from what you might find at a college today. Instead of getting involved with sports or politics at Harvard, Oliver wanted to hang out with the cool kids who congregated to smoke and chat. Following his graduation in 1829, he originally decided to go into law, but had quickly changed his mind by 1830.

That year was a major turning point for Holmes in a lot of ways. For one, he then decided that he would rather study medicine than law and planned a lengthy trip through France, Britain, and other spots in Western Europe beginning in 1833. Second, his newfound hobby for poetry finally began to pay dividends with the publication of ‘Old Ironsides.’

When Holmes returned to Massachusetts in 1835, he wasn’t deterred from his professional aspirations and instead published his first volume of poems the following year. He also began to win prizes for academic papers (including two attacking homeopathy), and was soon given a position teaching anatomy at Dartmouth College.

In 1840, Oliver married Amelia Jackson, and the couple went on to have three children, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., later Supreme Court Justice of the United States. As Holmes, Sr. continued to hone his crafts, he eventually also got the opportunity to teach at his alma mater. As of 1847, Oliver became chair of the anatomy and physiology department at Harvard Medical School, where he continued to lecture all the way until 1882. Even without this job, though, Holmes would have been able to make ends meet.

By the 1850s, Holmes’ reputation as a writer was well-known and highly sought after. A local publishing company even asked for his help in editing their new literary magazine, which Oliver named The Atlantic Monthly in 1857 and which published much of his own work thereafter. Though obviously a poetic master in his own right, Holmes’ success as a poet is also connected to that of several other American writers working at the same time. These authors like Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were collectively known as fireside poets – American verse writers of the 19th century noted for their sense of scholarship, political commentary, and easily memorable lines and themes. These were the first English poets outside of England to gain widespread popularity in both the U.S. and Great Britain. He died in his sleep in 1894 at the age of 85.

Poems by Oliver Wendell Holmes

‘Old Ironsides’

Without a doubt his most famous work, Holmes composed this passionate poem in 1830. That year, the American frigate U.S.S. Constitution – formerly nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’ – was to be decommissioned and scrapped. However, public outcry including Oliver’s poem helped save the ship, and it now remains anchored on display off Massachusetts.

‘A Poem for the Meeting of the American Medical Association at New York, May 5, 1853’

Most of the poems we read usually don’t have titles as long as this one, but then again, most of those poems weren’t written for occasions as specific as this one, either. You may have discussed Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in class primarily as a literary figure, but we can’t forget that he was also (if not foremost) a physician who was active in the medical community. As the bridge between the worlds of literature and medicine, Holmes was asked on several occasions to write poems commemorating various gatherings and functions. In this particular commemorative poem, Oliver uses his medical knowledge and literary wit to thank his audience for their request of his work, as well as to compare his current service to them to the smaller machinations of the body.

Quotes from Holmes

  • The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a deal longer.’

The Professor at the Breakfast Table

  • ‘Love is the master-key…that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear.’

‘Dr. Butts Reflects,’ A Mortal Antipathy

  • ‘Nail to the mast her holy flag, / Set every thread-bare sail, / And give her to the god of storms,– / The lightning and the gale!’

-‘Old Ironsides’

Lesson Summary

Though also an active physician and medical educator for most of his life, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. is perhaps best known for his contributions to American literature, particularly as one of the fireside poets – American verse writers of the early to mid-19th century noted for their sense of scholarship, political commentary, and easily memorable lines and themes. His poems and his quotes embody a man with a true passion for social consciousness and self-awareness.