Posts tagged: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

The BackBlog: The Rise of Homeopathy

By , May 27, 2020

While some items in the backlog took lots of research to identify, this one did not. A card labeled “HOMEOPATHIC DRUG BOX” made the former contents of these bottles clear. 

Homeopathy is a medical practice based on the concept of “like cures like”. Homeopathic treatments are dilutions of a substance that would cause adverse symptoms in a healthy person but are believed to cure those symptoms in someone who is sick. For example, onion is used in remedies for seasonal allergies that result in itchy or sore eyes. Nux vomica, which comes from the strychnine tree, is used to treat nausea and hangovers. Most homeopathic preparations are so diluted that there are no longer any molecules of the original substance left. 

Photograph of a small chest containing small corked bottles. The chest is black. The lid is not attached and is sitting next to the part containing the bottles. A card that reads "HOMEOPATHIC DRUG BOX" is propped up against the chest.

Homeopathic Drug Box. From the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (WAM 22249)

The practice of homeopathy was founded in the late 18th century by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). Hahnemann’s student, Hans Birch Gram, brought homeopathy to the United States in 1825. In the beginning, most practitioners of homeopathy—or “homeopaths”—were German immigrants. The first homeopathic medical school in the US was founded in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1835.  The American Institute of Homeopathy was founded in 1844. Once these institutions were developed there was a rise in the popularity of homeopathy. More patients were interested in homeopathic treatments, and more Americans became practitioners. 

There were many reasons for this rise in popularity. One of the biggest was that homeopathy was considered safe compared to other medical treatments. Surgery often led to infection due to the lack of aseptic practices. The common treatments for diseases like cholera were unpleasant and ineffective. There were no active ingredients in most homeopathic remedies. Because of this, they could not cure an illness, but they also could not create negative side effects. Patients who were treated by homeopaths and recovered often reported a much better experience than their counterparts who had conventional medical treatments. 

Homeopathy also gained popularity because it was compared to another emerging medical practice: vaccination. Around the time that Hahnemann was creating his theory of homeopathy, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was experimenting with giving people small doses of cowpox to prevent smallpox infection. Like homeopathy, vaccination involves exposing yourself to a small amount of something that would make you sick in a larger quantity. The two practices are different for many reasons, but this similarity is what people focused on. The success of vaccination likely led to the widespread use of homeopathy. 

Although it was widely used, homeopathy was not accepted by everyone in the medical field. One of the harshest critics was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-1894), who was dean of the Harvard Medical School from 1847-1853. In 1842 Holmes published a book titled Homœopathy and Its Kindred Delusions, based on two of his lectures. Holmes criticized the basis of homeopathy and stated his belief that the positive results patients saw were due to the placebo effect. He compared homeopathy to other ineffective medical treatments, like Perkins tractors and the royal touch—the belief that the laying on of hands by a monarch could cure a sick subject. 

Homeopathy lost popularity in the early 20th century as surgery became safer and new treatments became available but saw a resurgence in the 1970s. Homeopathic preparations are often sold in pharmacies alongside conventional treatments. While this case from the backlog and the tiny bottles inside of it might look different from the homeopathy that we see today, their contents were not dissimilar from what you might find on a shelf today. 

Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Friendship Cup

By , April 13, 2020

On August 29, 1889, former dean of Harvard Medical School Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) turned 80 years old. Annie Fields (1834-1915) and Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), along with nine other women, presented Holmes with this silver loving cup at his birthday celebration. The cup entered the Harvard Medical Library collection in 1940 when Mrs. Richard Rule—the great-granddaughter of Holmes’ sister—presented it to the Department of Anatomy. A renewed focus was recently placed on the cup as part of an inventory project for this collection.  

Photograph of a stemless sliver loving cup with the engravings "Oliver Wendell Holmes" and "The Pledge of Friendship"

Oliver Wendell Holmes Friendship Cup. From the Harvard Medical Library in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine (a001.098)

Holmes was the Dean of Harvard Medical School from 1847-1853 and was the Parkman Professor of Anatomy and Physiology until he retired in 1882. Holmes was a skilled physician who made great contributions to research in puerperal fever and was the first person to bring a microscope into an anatomy classroom in the United States. Along with his medical prowess, Holmes was also a prolific writer. He published both poetry and prose. He came up with the name for the magazine The Atlantic and contributed to it many times. These worlds often collided for Holmes: much of his writing revolved around the medical world, and he frequently gave recitations of his poetry at events for medical institutions. 


The 1889 loving cup—called the “Friendship Cup”—is engraved with a quote from Holmes’ poem “The Sentiment”. The engraving reads: 

The Pledge of Friendship 

Tis the heart’s current lends the cup its glow 

Whate’er the fountain whence the draught may flow 

Photograph of the bottom of the cup showing the eleven names engraved there: Helen C. Bell, Marianne Brimmer, Susan Cabot, Annie Fields, Alice G. Howe, Elizabeth Howes, Sarah O. Jewett, Mary G. Lodge, Minnie C. Pratt, Cora L. Shaw, and Sarah W. Whitman

The bottom of the loving cup

A loving cup is a shared drinking vessel and is usually used at weddings and other celebrations. In the 19th century, they were popular for trophies and commemorative gifts. Holmes was particularly enamored with the design of the cup. The names of the donors were on the bottom. In theory, the names could not be seen if the cup was full, so it would have to be emptied—and therefor shared—before they could be read. He highlighted this aspect of the cup in his poem, “To The Eleven Ladies Who Presented a Loving Cup to Me”, which begins: 

“Who gave this cup?” The secret thou wouldst steal 

 Its brimming flood forbids it to reveal: 

No mortal’s eye shall read it till he first 

Cool the red throat of thirst. 


If on the golden floor one draught remain, 

Trust me, thy careful search will be in vain; 

Not till the bowl is emptied shalt thou know 

The names enrolled below.

Originally, only twelve copies of this poem were printed: one for Holmes and one for each of the donors. He signed these copies by hand. Holmes later published the poem in his 1891 book Over the Teacupsa collection of poems and essays centered around fictional breakfast-table conversations. 

Scan of two pages that display the poem, "To The Eleven Ladies" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes' signature is underneath the printed poem.

One of Twelve Original Copies of “To The Eleven Ladies”, signed by Oliver Wendell Holmes. From the Boston Medical Library in the Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

Not much is known about the donors or why they presented Holmes with this gift, but there are a few notable names on the bottom of the cup. Annie Fields was a writer who published collections of poetry and essays as well as biographies of notable literary figures. Her husband, James Fields, was a publisher. Together they ran literally salons out of their home, many of which were attended by Holmes. Annie Fields was also the sister of Zabdiel Boylston Adams, Jr., who was a surgeon and attended Harvard Medical School while Holmes was Dean. Sarah Orne Jewett was a friend and later companion of Annie Fields. She was also a writer and was best known for her work describing rural New England Life. Her father, Theodore Herman Jewett, was a doctor. Her experience accompanying him on his rounds as a child inspired her book A Country Doctor. 

It is easy to see why Fields and Jewett would have been drawn to Holmes, and although not much is known about the other donors, the Friendship Cup is a clear sign of admiration from all eleven women. Holmes’ poem indicates that the admiration was reciprocal. This reciprocity is part of what makes the Friendship Cup stand out in the collection: it doesn’t just reveal information about Holmes himself, but about his friendship with the donors. Although this loving cup was donated to the Harvard Medical Library as an artifact relating to Oliver Wendell Holmes, it sheds some light on the lives of eleven others as well. 

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