Holmes, Oliver Wendell
HOLMES, OLIVER WENDELL
Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1809 and died in Boston in 1894. Known primarily as a writer and poet, Holmes embarked on a medical career in 1830. Three years later, he traveled to Paris to obtain more advanced training. He remained in Paris for two years before returning to finish his degree at Harvard Medical School in 1836. Holmes worked as a professor of anatomy at Dartmouth Medical College and as a private practitioner before obtaining a position as a professor of anatomy at Harvard in 1847, a post he held until his retirement in 1882. During his time in Paris, Holmes's instructors had introduced him to the importance of the microscope for medical studies, and he regularly instructed his students in the use of the instrument in anatomical study.
Holmes made his most significant contribution to public health in the area of maternal health. Puerperal fever, a disease that surfaces following childbirth, claimed a significant number of women's lives, and physicians were unable to predict when it would strike or what caused it. Holmes became intrigued by several presentations on the topic at the Boston Society for Medical Improvement and initiated his own study on the subject that resulted in his seminal work, The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, which he read before the Society in 1843 and subsequently published. His investigation convinced him that physicians were themselves responsible for carrying the disease from one patient to another. Consequently, Holmes advocated the washing of hands, changing of clothes, and a twenty-four-hour period between handling corpses and treating patients.
Holmes's directions, however, were met with derision by some who would not believe that physicians could be the source of disease, and, even when followed, his suggestions did not always work. Yet, his protocols offered some response to a pressing public health concern and questioned the relationship between disease, patients, and physicians.
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Parsons, G. P. (1997). "Puerperal Fever, Anticontagionists, and Miasmatic Infection 1840–1860: Toward a New History of Puerperal Fever in Antebellum America." Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 52:424–452.
Small, M. R. (1962). Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Twayne.