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MEDICAL LEONARDO OF BOSTON, OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, M.D. (1809-1894): AN EVALUATION OF VERSATILITY PARKJ. WHITE* Versatility He was first of all a wit. He was also a physician, anatomist, physiologist , achiever in public health, poet, essayist, public speaker, linguist, biographer, novelist, Unitarian, child psychologist, ophthalmologist, medical historian, dendrologist, and horticulturist. And he was every inch a Bostonian—all 64 inches of him. He was indeed a wit, although he did not think brevity the soul of it. Latterly, as he watched his tall, handsome, brilliant older son, Wendell, Jr., achieve distinction in his chosen profession of the law, he made it clear to all that there was—and is—no danger ofconfusing senior withjunior. Senior, by the way, never got over his prejudice against the law—never after trying a year in the (excellent) Harvard Law School (e.g., "Wendell, no lawyer can ever become a great man!"). Our Holmes (Sr.) was born in thatAnnus Mirabilis, 1809, which saw the birth of Lincoln, Darwin, Tennyson, Mendelssohn, and other greats. There was plenty of Bostonian precedent for his graduation from Harvard in the latter's Classis Mirabilis, 1829. He was a highly eligible member of the group named by him "Boston Brahmins"—a connection to which he had no objection whatever. In these days of necessary specialization, we need to remind ourselves that only three generations ago such a versatile person as OWH actually existed and delightfully, and delightedly dominated his scene. wit By definition wit is a matter of quick response, not necessarily droll, usually trigger happy, arresting, stimulating, apropos—all qualities ?Professor of clinical pediatrics emeritus, Edward Mallinckrodt, Jr., Department of Pediatrics, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri. Address: 410 Melville Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri 63130.© 1981 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/81/2403-0043$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine ¦ Spring 1981 411 which Holmes possessed in abundance. In most ofhis writings, as in most of his life, he was an artist in his use ofcontrast; now deadly earnest, now light fantastic, now rapier like in use of ridicule. He talked and taught and wrote much; he had much to say and teach and write—much that his stodgy world needed to learn and to act upon. Holmes found his wit irresistible to both himself and his public. At times it got him into trouble. He was a close friend of the famous Beecher family. At the height of the Reverend Henry Ward's difficulties with his huge parish, with his tendency to romance, his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe took a bit of sisterly umbrage at Holmes's well-known perfect pun: A preacher named Henry Ward Beecher Called the hen a most wonderful creature. The hen, liking that Laid an egg in his hat; And thus did the hen reward Beecher. The pun was a masterpiece. The timing was not. physician How often Holmes turned his wit at, not necessarily against, his fellow physicians, both young and old! As a born teacher, he felt called upon, even called, to instruct the same. Remember his now famous remark made in his early days on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School (1830-1833) when he was professor of anatomy, physiology, and medicine: "I occupy, not a professorial chair, but a whole settee." He was also Dean of the Faculty from 1847 to 1853; there were eight members [Lp. 72]. It was typical of his courage that he favored the admission of women as medical students; but both students and faculty were so vehemently opposed that he did not extend his courage to foolhardiness. OWH always hated and avoided anything resembling political squabbles. Fortunately, Holmes mingled his wit with his exhortations, viz., the following from "The Morning Visit" found in his poetical works: But change the time, the person, and the place, And be yourself the "interesting case. . . ." So, of your questions, don't in mercy try To pump your patient absolutely dry; He's not a mollusc, squirming in a dish; You're not Agassiz, and he's not a fish. Each look, each movement, every word and tone, 412 I ParkJ. White · Oliver WendellHolmes Should tell your patient you are...


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