Oliver Wendell Holmes

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Related to Oliver Wendel Holmes: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Holmes, Oliver Wendell

, American author and physician
Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1809–94, American author and physician, b. Cambridge, Mass., grad. Harvard (B.A., 1829; M.D., 1836); father of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He began his medical career as a general practitioner but shifted into the academic field, becoming professor of anatomy and physiology at Dartmouth (1838–40), dean of the Harvard medical school (1847–53), and Parkman professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard (1847–82). A stimulating and popular speaker, he published two important medical lectures, one in opposition to the practice of homeopathy and the other on the nature of fevers. His first important poem, “Old Ironsides” (1830), was a protest against the scrapping of the fighting ship Constitution. A collection of his witty occasional poems was published in 1836. In 1857 he began to contribute to the Atlantic Monthly (which he named) the famous series of “Breakfast-table” sketches, which were collected in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858) and several subsequent volumes. These urbane pieces present imaginary conversations at a Boston boardinghouse, reflecting Holmes's opinions, charm, and wit. The first volume includes several poems, of which the most famous are the ironic “Deacon's Masterpiece” and “The Chambered Nautilus.” Among his other notable works are three novels presenting a scientific approach to psychological traits, most notably Elsie Venner (1861); and biographies of his friends John Lothrop Motley (1879) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1855).


See biographies by E. M. Tilton (1947) and M. R. Small (1962); study by M. A. De Wolfe Howe (1939, repr. 1972); bibliography by H. C. Shriver, ed. (1978).

Holmes, Oliver Wendell

, American jurist

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1841–1935, American jurist, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1902–32), b. Boston; son of the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes. He served (1861–64) with distinction in the Civil War, took a law degree at Harvard (1866), and began practice in Boston in 1867. Holmes taught (1870–73) constitutional law and jurisprudence at Harvard while editing the American Law Review and the 12th edition (1873) of Kent's Commentaries. In 1880, Holmes delivered a series of lectures on common law at the Lowell Institute. In them he attacked prevailing views of jurisprudence and proposed new conceptions of the origin and nature of law. He maintained that the law could be understood only as a response to the needs of the society it regulated, and that it was useless to consider it merely a body of rules developed logically by legal theorists. With the publication of the Lowell lectures in 1881, Holmes achieved international recognition. He became (1882) professor of law at Harvard and several months later was appointed to the Massachusetts supreme judicial court. There he served for 20 years, becoming chief justice in 1899. He was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902.

The canons of Holmes's judicial faith were strict and demanding. He preached “judicial restraint” and firmly believed that popular majorities through their elected representatives should not have their will thwarted capriciously; when his colleagues on the court nullified social legislation—e.g., minimum wage and hour laws—as unconstitutional, Holmes vigorously objected. From his eloquent opinions in these cases he came to be regarded as the Great Dissenter. In cases dealing with free speech, however, Holmes felt it necessary for the judge to loose the bonds of restraint and prevent legislatures from assuming censorious powers. In defense of the First Amendment, he developed the “clear and present danger” rule, which allows for restrictions only when the public interest is faced with immediate threat. Set forth in the Abrams and Gitlow cases in dissenting opinions, the rule was generally accepted by the Supreme Court. Holmes's published works include The Common Law (1881), Speeches (1891, 1913), and Collected Legal Papers (1920).


See biographies by M. D. Howe (2 vol., 1957–63), S. Bent (1932, repr. 1969), and S. Budiansky (2019); S. J. Konefsky, The Legacy of Holmes and Brandeis (1956, repr. 1974); F. Frankfurter, Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court (2d ed. 1961); A. W. Alschuler, Law without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes (2000); T. Healy, The Great Dissent (2013).

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Holmes, Oliver Wendell

(1809–94) physician, poet, writer; born in Cambridge, Mass. The son of a Congregational minister, he was his class poet at Harvard College; he stayed on to study law but changed to medicine; he spent two years studying medicine in Paris, then returned to take his M.D. from Harvard (1836) and start a private practice; from 1838–40 he taught anatomy at Dartmouth, but then he returned to Boston to practice medicine. He invented an early stethoscope; suggested the term "anestesia" (from the Greek for "no feeling") for the state induced by the new gases; published two influential medical works, Homeopathy and Kindred Delusions (1842) and The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (1843); and became Parkman Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Harvard (1847–82). But long before this he had been gaining a parallel reputation as a poet and writer. In 1830 his poem "Old Ironsides" galvanized national sentiment to save the USS Constitution from destruction. While still a graduate student he published two essays in the New England Magazine under the title "The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table" and in the late 1850s, The Atlantic Monthly, which he had founded in 1857 with James Russell Lowell, began to publish his essays and poems. The essays were collected in a book, The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table, and this led to several other collections of his essays. Two of his poems were household classics in their day—"The Chambered Nautilus" and "The Deacon's Masterpiece." He also wrote three novels about psychologically disturbed characters, of which Elsie Venner (1861) was the most successful. He wrote a biography of his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1885).

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr.

(1841–1935) Supreme Court justice; born in Boston, Mass. (son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1809–94). Raised among Boston's intellectual community, he fought for the Union in the Civil War and was seriously wounded three times. After the war, he entered a private law practice in Boston and edited the American Law Review and the twelfth edition of James Kent's legal classic, Commentaries on American Law (1873) as well as penning the essays that comprised his seminal work, The Common Law (1881). He served the Massachusetts Supreme Court (1882–1902), as chief justice from 1899. President Theodore Roosevelt named him to the U.S. Supreme Court (1902–32), where he was known as "The Great Dissenter" for the clarity and verve with which he wrote his frequent dissenting opinions. Although since revered by liberals for his opinions on such issues as free speech, during his tenure on the Supreme Court he promoted judicial restraint, believing that lawmaking was better left to the constituents and the legislature. He retired from the bench at the age of 91.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.