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National Library of Medicine Receives Collection of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Materials

The National Library of Medicine, the world's largest medical library and a component of the National Institutes of Health, is pleased to announce the donation of a large collection of printed books by and about the physician, poet, and cultural icon Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., MD. The collection was gathered by Washington-area bibliophile Marilyn Barth, former adjunct professor at the School of Library and Information Science at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. Among the books are over 100 colorful American and British editions of Holmes' bestselling and iconic work, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, first published in 1858. Many of the books were on display in the Library's History of Medicine Division for Holmes's 200th birthday in 2009.

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) was a noted physician, lecturer, poet, novelist and the father of the Supreme Court Justice with the same name. Through his wit and turn of phrase, Holmes became an iconic figure in popular American culture, most notably through his poetry, his regular contributions to the Atlantic Monthly magazine for over three decades, and his Breakfast Table series of essays. His image and quotations from his works became ubiquitous, and he was one of the most sought after lecturers in America on topics ranging from medicine to literature.

Holmes' medical career began as a medical student in Paris and then at Harvard Medical School, and he quickly gained attention by winning two Boylston Prize Essays in 1836 and 1837. He is most known in medicine for his work, The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever (1843), in which he challenged the medical establishment about its treatment of women during childbirth. He was professor of anatomy at Harvard for over 30 years and was an immensely influential figure in American medicine.

While Holmes Sr. is not as well-known today, his image and quotations from his works were used to sell countless commercial items in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ranging from calendars and games to postcards and gift books. During his lifetime and for many years after his death his works, especially his poems and The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, were reprinted in hundreds of editions by American and British publishers. Today, many of Holmes' quotations are available online although many people now mistake his words for those of his son, the famous jurist.

In addition to the many copies of Holmes' Autocrat, the collection features many editions of his poems and other writings, making it an important and interesting research collection relating to popular publishing practices of the 19th century. The collection includes colorful publishers' bindings, with some by important designers such as Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904), best known for her work in the 1890s for Houghton, Mifflin & Co.

For more information about the collection, contact Michael North, Head, Rare Books & Early Manuscripts, History of Medicine Division,

For information about donating historical materials to NLM, please visit our Web site: // .



Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. Mayflower series. (New York: Wilmore-Andrews Publishing Co., [1895?]). 

Breakfast Table Image 2

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. Alcazar Classics Edition. (New York: H. M. Caldwell Co., 1912).

Breadfast Table Image 3

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. With an introduction by Richard Burton. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1900).

Breakfast Table Image 4

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. Cambridge Classics Series. (New York: Hurst & Company, 1903).