Oliver Wendell Holmes

Two prominent figures in American intellectual history, father and son, went by the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Although the terms "Jr." and "Sr." would apply, they were not consistently used, leading to some confusion.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
The first Oliver Wendell Holmes made significant contributions to both medicine and literature. Born on August 29, 1809, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was educated at Phillips Academy in Exeter and at Harvard. He declined to follow his father`s wishes and enter the ministry, and after a brief time in law school, he lost interest in that as well.

He decided instead to enter medicine. In 1830, he entered the medical college in Boston, where the training was not particularly modern. Holmes was dismayed but such ancient and entirely ineffective practices as bloodletting. He went to Paris in 1833 to study at the Ecole de Medicine. Practices there represented the most advanced medicine of the time, and Holmes acquired a belief in modern medicine which he brought back to Boston with him. Receiving his M.D. degree from Harvard in 1836, he continued his long association with Harvard as an instructor in the medical school. He wrote on the spread of contagious diseases before the theory of germs was established.

Holmes supported the candidacy of Harriot Hunt for admission to the Harvard medical school, for which he was criticized by the all-male faculty and student body. Harvard did not admit a female student until 1945. He was less clearly in favor of black students, and his mildly anti-slavery position put him at odds with his more radical abolitionist friends in Boston. However, after the outbreak of the Civil War, Holmes demonstrated complete support for the Union.

Holmes` parallel career in literature began with amateur poetry writing at a young age, which continued through his formal education. In 1830, he wrote a three-stanza poem in response to the proposed scrapping of the U.S.S. Constitution, called Old Ironsides, which brought him national attention.

He also wrote essays, several of which were published in magazine form in 1831 and 1832 under the title, "Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table." When the Atlantic Monthly was launched by Boston`s literary elite in 1856, Holmes became a contributor. For the publication`s first issue, he revised two essays from The Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table which contributed to the magazine`s immediate success. A book of the same title came out in 1858 and sold very well. In 1859, he produced The Professor at the Breakfast-Table, first in magazine serial form and then as a book. The series ended with The Poet at the Breakfast Table in 1879.

On October 7, 1894, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., having outlived his wife and daughter, died in Boston.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

The second Oliver Wendell Holmes as born in Boston on March 8, 1841. After graduating from Harvard in 1861, he entered the Union army, where he was wounded three times in engagements that included Antietam and Fredericksburg. Leaving the Army in 1864 with the permanent rank of captain, he returned to Boston to study law. Graduating from Harvard Law School in 1867, he entered law practice in Boston.

Appointed a professor at Harvard`s law school in 1882, he resigned at the end of that year to become a justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court. In 1899, he became its Chief Justice, and three years later, he was appointed an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, where he served for thirty years.

Believing that the law was "an experiment, as all life is an experiment," Holmes was often in conflict with the more conservative justices, and earned the label "The Great Dissenter." He often wrote in favor of more liberal interpretations of the constitution, to allow for greater government regulation as in the case of Adkins v. Children`s Hospital. He advocated strong protection for the freedom of speech, although his most memorable quote may have been in Schenck v. United States (1919), he stated: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."

Holmes dissented in Adkins v. Children`s Hospital in 1923, objecting to the court`s overturning of a Congressional law establishing a minimum wage for women in the District of Columbia. He commented:

This statute does not compel anybody to pay anything. It simply forbids employment at rates below those fixed as the minimum requirement of health and right living. It is safe to assume that women will not be employed at even the lowest wages allowed unless they earn them, or unless the employer`s business can sustain the burden.

When Holmes finally resigned from the Supreme Court in 1932, he had become the oldest justice ever to serve. He died on March 5, 1935, two days short of his 94th birthday.

---- Selected Quotes ----

Quotes by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Regarding Amendment I
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.
Writing in Schenck v. United States, a Supreme Court case in 1919
Regarding United States Constitution
The interpretation of constitutional principles must not be too literal. We must remember that the machinery of government would not work if it were not allowed a little play in its joints.
Writing in the case of Bain Peanut Co. v. Pinson, 1931
Regarding Freedom of Speech
With effervescing opinions, as with the not yet forgotten champagne, the quickest way to let them get flat is to let them get exposed to the air.
Letter, January 1920
Regarding Judicial Review
My boy, about seventy-five years ago I learned I was not God. And so, when the people of the various states want to do something and I can't find anything in the Constitution expressly forbidding them to do it, I say, whether I like it or not: "Damn it, let 'em do it!"
Regarding Judicial Review
The criterion of constitutionality is not whether we believe the law to be for the public good.
Dissenting opinion in Adkins v. Children's Hospital

Quotes regarding Oliver Wendell Holmes.

By Ralph Waldo Emerson
I read your piece on Plato. Holmes, when you strike at a king, you must kill him.
Said to a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who had written a piece critical of Plato in response to his earlier conversation with Emerson

Popular Pages

More Info