Poetry, physiology, and puerperal fever:
understanding the young Oliver Wendell Holmes

by
Putnam CE.
The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History
of Medicine at UCL, London, United Kingdom.
Acta Physiol Hung. 2001;88(2):155


ABSTRACT

The 19th-century American physician Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) is known, internationally, more for his literary output than for his contributions to medical science. Yet a single paper he wrote in 1843--"The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever"--has made him a hero in the eyes of many (especially in the United States) of the struggle against that scourge. Why that one article, written when Holmes was still in his thirties, should--even in its expanded 1855 version--so routinely be referred to as a "classic of medical literature", and why its author should have been raised on such a high pedestal that some grant him a position beside Ignac Semmelweis, are complicated questions. This present paper is an attempt to begin assessing what it is that makes someone a medical hero by looking at three different aspects of Holmes's early career. He was even as a young man a poet and a physiologist/anatomist as well as the author of this important essay. Whether and how those three features of Holmes's many-sides public persona are connected is discussed as a prelude to considering whether his work on puerperal fever legitimates his status as a medical hero.
People
Joseph Lister
Obstetric anaesthesia
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis
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