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Oliver Wendell Holmes Biography | Poet

Photo of Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., (August 29, 1809 – October 7, 1894) was a physician by profession but achieved fame as a writer; he was one of the best regarded American poets of the 19th century.

He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of a minister. He was educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and at Harvard University. He first attained national prominence with his poem "Old Ironsides" about the 18th century frigate USS Constitution, which was to be broken up for scrap; the poem generated public sentiment that resulted in the historic ship being preserved as a monument. One of his most popular works was The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. He was one of the five members of the group known as the Fireside Poets. He contributed poems and essays to the Atlantic Monthly from its inception, and also published novels.

His son was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He was a descendant of the first American female writer, Anne Bradstreet.

In 1846, in a letter to William T. G. Morton, the dentist who was the first practitioner to publicly demonstrate the use of ether during surgery, Holmes coined the word anæsthesia. Dr. Holmes developed the popular model of the stereoscope, a 19th century entertainment in which pictures were viewed in 3-D. He was widely known and admired during his life. The noted Sherlockian Michael Harrison conjectured that the British author Arthur Conan Doyle drew one inspiration for his famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes from a real-life self-described "consulting detective" named Wendel Scherer. changing "Scherer" to "Sherlock" and "Wendel" to "Holmes" by association with Oliver Wendell Holmes. See Michael Harrison, A Study in Surmise, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 1971, p. 59.

Holmes died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1894, and is buried in that city's Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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