Hughesair (Inflection Point)

Retired physician and air taxi operator, science writer and part time assistant professor, these editorials cover a wide range of topics. Mostly non political, mostly true, I write more from a lifetime of experience and from research, more science than convention. Subjects cover medicine, Alaska aviation, economics, technology and an occasional book review. Globalization or Democracy documents the historical roots of Oligarchy, the road to colonialism and tyranny

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Friday, August 04, 2023

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. 1809-1894

            Homes, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, short of stature and long on intellect, Homes wrote poetry, studied medicine in Paris, initiated medical reform and was best known for his son, Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. a Supreme Court Justice.

            Homes graduated from Harvard in 1829, quit law school after 1 year and wrote the famous poem, “The Last Leaf,” a poem about Thomas Melvill, "the last of the cocked hats" and one of the "Indians" from the 1774 Boston Tea Party. Holmes would later write that Melvill had reminded him of, "a withered leaf which has held to its stem through the storms of autumn and winter and finds itself still clinging to its bough while the new growths of spring are bursting their buds and spreading their foliage all around it.” (1831)


I saw him once before,
As he passed by the door,
And again
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o'er the ground
With his cane.

They say that in his prime,
Ere the pruning-knife of Time
Cut him down,
Not a better man was found
By the Crier on his round
Through the town.

But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
Sad and wan,
And he shakes his feeble head,
That it seems as if he said,
"They are gone!"

The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.

My grandmamma has said--
Poor old lady, she is dead
Long ago--
That he had a Roman nose,
And his cheek was like a rose
In the snow;

But now his nose is thin,
And it rests upon his chin
Like a staff,
And a crook is in his back,
And a melancholy crack
In his laugh.

I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
At him here;
But the old three-cornered hat,
And the breeches, and all that,
Are so queer!

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.


            Holmes quit law school after 1 year and switched to medicine. He traveled to Paris for a medical education. Pierre Charles Alexandre Lewis at école de médecine hosted many American doctors seeking knowledge not available in America. Homes learned infectious disease, autopsy, the stethoscope, percussion and microscopy from PCA Lewis, additionally the elementary use of statistics in rebutting the practice of bloodletting as a rational treatment for pneumonia. 

Harvard Medical College granted Holmes a medical degree in1836. In sharing knowledge of European medicine, Holmes wrote essays urging medical reform. He joined the Boston and Massachusetts medical societies and the Boston Society for Medical Improvement along with fellow Paris-trained doctors. Harvard granted Holmes the Boylston Prize for an article describing the use of the stereotype, new to American doctors. 

Holmes, disillusioned by the squaller of the dispensary, sought research, reform and teaching. In 1837, along with 3 colleagues from the Paris-school, Holmes started a medical school, upstairs above an apothecary at 35 Tremont Row. They taught autopsy, pathology, auscultation and microscopy. Their school soon merged with Harvard medical school. Holmes taught at the Dartmouth medical school, and in 1838, was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He once commented, “If all of American medicine were to be thrown into the ocean, it would be an improvement, but would be bad for the fish.”

            Holmes lectured on medical fallacies, quackery, homeopathy and “other delusions.” In 1843 he published a paper linking the contagion of puerperal fever to infections carried from one patient to another by care givers and physicians. The paper was not widely accepted but did anticipate the experiments and findings of Ignaz Semmelweis in Vienna 4 years later. Holmes revised his paper on puerperal fever in 1885. 

            In 1847 Holmes taught Anatomy Physiology as the basis of disease at Harvard. He took over as Dean of the new Harvard medical school 1847 until 1853 but continued teaching until 1882. Students called him Uncle Oliver. Holmes passion for scientific medicine and reform foreshadowed the Flexner Report of 1910. 


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