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Yale J Biol Med. 2010 June; 83(2): 111–112.
Published online 2010 June.
PMCID: PMC2892772

Oliver Wendell Holmes: Physician and Man of Letters

Reviewed by Molly C. Kottemann

Scott H. Podolsky, Charles S. Bryan, editors.
Oliver Wendell Holmes: Physician and Man of Letters.
2009. Science History Publications: Sagamore Beach, MA. ISBN: (Hardcover) 978-0881353792. US $35.00 274 p

The vast majority of discourse on Oliver Wendell Holmes is confined to Holmes Jr., the 20th century Supreme Court justice, rather than his father. In Oliver Wendell Holmes: Physician and Man of Letters, editors Scott H. Podolsky and Charles S. Bryan redress this imbalance, giving the author, medical scholar, and purported inspiration for Sherlock Holmes his due. Beginning with a series of essays on both the medical and literary legacies of Holmes Sr. and ending with an eminently citable collection of quotes, this volume gives thorough consideration to a man who was perhaps America’s last great polymath-physician.

The reader will be surprised to learn about Holmes’ legacy. Before Pasteur popularized his germ theory, Holmes investigated the role of contagion in puerperal, or “childbirth,” fever; long before hordes gathered in front of pharmacies in central London to protest homeopaths, Holmes published scathing essays condemning homeopathy and its “kindred delusions.” Furthermore, he is the only medical doctor to save not just a patient but an entire battleship — the USS Constitution — by penning a poem rather than a prescription. A descendent of Rabelais, who was a contemporary of Emerson and Longfellow, Holmes distinguished himself not only as a doctor but also as a best-selling author.

While a simple recitation of Holmes’ many achievements would amount to a readable biography, each essay describes and then dissects aspects of his work, and the book as a whole is a well-considered and edifying treatment of a fascinating character. The authors explore what they consider the foundations of Holmes’ far-reaching work: his critical scientific deliberations, discussions of skepticism in medicine, theories of depth psychology, and central role in fostering vibrant literary discourse in America’s “Age of Conversation.” It is this treatment of multiple aspects of Holmes’ professional life that makes the volume equally accessible and interesting to readers of multiple fields and backgrounds.

The section that returns to Holmes himself, offering a compendium of quotes on a wide array of topics, is perhaps the most interesting. The preceding essays provide introduction and analysis that lend the following collection of excerpts contiguity and context, and they alone are certainly worth reading. Yet any reader from doctor to writer will want to dip into the well-curated quotes for epigraph or inspiration long after the book has been shelved. Though Holmes warns his readers — or, one might imagine, lesser men — against “all ambitious aspirations outside of your profession,” we may all take just a moment from our professions to enjoy the wit and wisdom of this artist/doctor/critic and the writers who present him to us.

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