Main content

Oliver Wendell Holmes lines on the presentation of his portrait


Held at: Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia [Contact Us]19 S. 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Oliver Wendell Holmes was an American physician, poet, and humorist notable for his medical research and teaching, and as the author of the "Breakfast-Table" series of essays. He was born August 29, 1809, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and from Harvard College in 1829, he spent one year in law school and then entered Harvard Medical School. He received his M.D. in 1836, after studying for an additional three years in Paris and Edinburgh. He was made physician to the Massachusetts General Hospital, and from 1838 to 1840 he was professor of anatomy at Dartmouth College in the summer months. He also taught at the Tremont Street Medical School, where courses supplementary to those of Harvard Medical School were given. Holmes was then elected to the newly established Parkman professorship of anatomy and physiology at Harvard, a position he held from 1847 to 1882. His popular lectures on anatomy were renowned for their erudition and wit.

As a teacher he advocated for the use of the microscope, which had just come into general use. In his medical writing he argued for what he considered good causes, rather than offering original discoveries. Examples of his essays are "Utility and Importance of Direct Exploration in Medical Science" (1837), an argument for more frequent use of the stethoscope; "Homeopathy and its Kindred Delusions" (1842), a scornful indictment against quackery of all kinds; "Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science" (1860), an insistence on scientifically tested therapeutic practices; and" Mechanism in Thought and Morals" (1871), an argument for the recognition of psychology in both morals and medicine. His most well-known essay was the controversial "The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever" (1843), in which he contended that the disease was transmitted from patient to patient by the attending physician. Not unexpectedly, his article was opposed vigorously by America's leading obstetricians and he suffered personal abuse until his views were accepted.

Holmes presented his personal library of 1000 volumes to the Boston Medical Library, of which he was president for 13 years. From his medical school days until the end of his life he published both verse and prose. He was a popular lecturer, whose "firecracker" wit exploded before delighted audiences. His essays and poems kept the newly founded Atlantic Monthly afloat in its early days. In 1886, he received honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh Universities. He was elected an Associate Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia on May 4, 1892. His portrait had been presented to the College several days earlier, on April 30.

Holmes died October 7, 1894, in Cambridge.

From: Berkowitz, Julie S. "Oliver Wendell Holmes." The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Portrait Catalog. Philadelphia: College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 1984.

This small collection consists of two typescript pamphlets of "Lines by Oliver Wendell Holmes on the presentation of his portrait to the Philadelphia College of Physicians", as well as a handwritten copy of the poem.

The handwritten copy is 5 pages, and is signed and dated "Boston, April 28, 1892", by Holmes.

Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Finding Aid Author
Chrissie Perella
Finding Aid Date
April 2019

Collection Inventory

Print, Suggest