Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Biography

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a renowned American poet, author, physician, and professor, was highly regarded for his oratory and literary skills. His most notable work, the ‘Breakfast-Table’ series, brought him international fame. As a member of the esteemed ‘Fireside Poets’, alongside Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, Holmes contributed to the rise of conventional and family-friendly American literature that gained immense popularity in Europe. Known as the ‘Boston Brahmin’, Holmes championed the cultural significance of Boston in his writings, considering it the intellectual hub of the continent. In addition to his poetry, Holmes also excelled in various genres, including novels, travelogues, and medical treatises, covering a wide range of subjects such as theology, medicine, psychology, democracy, and society. His contributions to literature and academia earned him respect and acclaim from his peers, as well as international appreciation throughout his life.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • Died At Age: 85
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Amelia Jackson Holmes
    • Father: Abiel Holmes
    • Mother: Sarah Wendell
    • Children: Amelia Jackson Holmes and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Edward Jackson Holmes
  • Quotes By Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
  • Poets
  • Died on: October 7, 1894
  • Place of death: Boston, Massachusetts, United States
  • U.S. State: Massachusetts
  • More Facts
  • Education: Harvard University

Childhood & Early Life

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was born on August 29, 1809 in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Reverend Abiel Holmes and his second wife Sarah Wendell. His father was a minister of the ‘First Congressional Church’ and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Despite suffering from asthma since childhood, Holmes was considered a bright and talented boy. He developed a love for reading and explored the writings of authors like Oliver Goldsmith and John Dryden. At the age of thirteen, he wrote his first poem. Holmes attended the ‘Port School’ in Cambridgeport, where his teachers often scolded him for reading stories during class.

Education and Career

At the age of fifteen, Holmes was sent to ‘Phillips Academy’ in Andover, Massachusetts by his father, who wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a minister. However, Holmes did not have an interest in theology and did not enjoy his time at the academy. At sixteen, he enrolled in Harvard College and graduated in 1829. During his time at Harvard, he served as Secretary and Poet at the ‘Hasty Pudding’ and was elected to the ‘Phi Beta Kappa’ honor society. After graduating, he briefly studied at Harvard Law College before deciding to pursue medicine. He attended Boston Medical College and later went to Paris to study in renowned medical schools. He returned to Harvard and completed his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1836.

Career Highlights

After completing his education, Holmes became a prominent figure in the medical field. He joined various medical societies and won the ‘Boylston Prize’ from Harvard Medical School in 1837 for his paper on the benefits of the stethoscope. He helped establish the ‘Tremont Medical School’ in Boston and served as the dean of Harvard Medical College from 1847 to 1853. Holmes also made significant contributions to literature. He regularly contributed to ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ and his essays in the series ‘The Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table’ were highly acclaimed. In 1860, he invented a hand stereoscope for viewing pictures in 3-D form. Holmes received honorary doctorates from Cambridge, Oxford, and Edinburgh Universities, as well as an honorary degree from Yale University.

Major Works and Legacy

Holmes wrote several notable works throughout his career. His poem ‘Old Ironsides’ gained national attention and helped preserve the historic ship ‘USS Constitution’. His essay ‘The Contagiousness of puerperal fever’ was a significant contribution to medical science. In his personal life, Holmes married Amelia Lee Jackson in 1840 and they had three children. He passed away on October 7, 1894 and was buried in the ‘Mount Auburn Cemetery’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Holmes left behind a legacy of both medical and literary achievements. The library of the Phillips Academy was named after him, and a memorial seat and sundial were erected in Boston in his honor. A memorial tablet was also placed at the King’s Chapel in Boston to commemorate his achievements.

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