Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. invented the stereoscope; he coined the terms “anesthesia” and “Boston Brahmin,” played a vital role in the preservation of the USS Constitution, popularized the stethoscope in the US, and named what would become the magazine The Atlantic; he was close friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margret Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell, and served as a pallbearer for Nathaniel Hawthorne; his son—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—was a Supreme Court Justice, and his daughter, Amelia, married the American landscape painter Turner Sargent; a North Carolina town, Wendell, is named for him; and he once donated $10 to help buy a horse and buggy for the aging Walt Whitman.
Despite these numerous achievements, however, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. is best known for his work as an essayist and a poet. Born and raised in Boston, Holmes began writing at a young age; his father transcribed his first poem when he was only thirteen. Holmes attended a preparatory academy in Andover, and then returned to Boston, where he entered Harvard and intended to pursue a career in law. After only a year, however, he found the profession “cold and cheerless,” turning briefly back to poetry. It was then that he produced one of his most famous works, “Old Ironsides,” in defense of the USS Constitution. The ship was, at the time, slated for decommission. Holmes’ poem opened
“Aye tear her tattered ensign down
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky…”
Despite the success of the poem—which was reproduced in papers from New York to Washington—Holmes next went into medicine, where he worked for many years in defense of “germ theory,” especially revolutionizing the treatment of contagious diseases in infants. He never fully abandoned writing, though; in 1856, in conjunction with the Saturday Club, Holmes helped to launch The Atlantic Monthly with a serialized collection of essays that would become The Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table. These were humorous, fictionalized accounts of breakfast table conversation that saw incredible popularity. The book sold over ten thousand copies in its first week.
While continuing his career in medicine, Holmes went on to publish three novels and two additional “breakfast-table” books: The Professor at the Breakfast-Table and The Poet at the Breakfast-Table. He had the unfortunate distinction of being the last of his circle of friends, outliving Emerson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne. He died at 85 years old, in 1894.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.