February 23, 2010

Dr Holmes and the Teachers of America

The National Education Association met in Boston on February 23, 1893. Often called upon for special functions in his native city, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was asked to present a special poem for the occasion. The 83-year old poet obliged with an original 26-line poem, "To the Teachers of America."

In the poem, Holmes praised the "noble" task of teachers, comparing them to farmers who toil over their crops. Holmes himself had served as a teacher, one of the many hats he wore before his death just about 20 months after this poem was presented. He first taught at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire from 1838 to 1840. Then, he dedicated himself to medical reform, publishing his famous essay on "The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever" in 1843. He also coined the term "anaesthesia" before taking a position as Parkman Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Harvard Medical School in 1847.

While working at his alma mater, he also served as the Dean for a short time. During that time, he granted admission to Harriet Kezia Hunt, making her the first woman allowed into the Medical School. Because of pressure from the all-male student body, however, Holmes asked her to withdraw her application (a woman would not be admitted until 1945). He later attempted to admit three African-Americans, including Martin Delany (a friend of Frederick Douglass). Again, pressure from others led to their dismissal. Holmes resigned as Chair in 1853 but continued to teach at Harvard Medical school until 1882. He was well-liked, and his final lecture was photographed.

"To the Teachers of America" (1893)

Teachers of teachers! Yours the task,
Noblest that noble minds can ask,
High up Aonia's murmurous mount,
To watch, to guard the sacred fount
That feeds the streams below;
To guide the hurrying flood that fills
A thousand silvery rippling rills
In ever-widening flow.

Rich is the harvest from the fields
That bounteous Nature kindly yields,
But fairer growths enrich the soil
Ploughed deep by thought's unwearied toil
In Learning's broad domain.
And where the leaves, the flowers, the fruits,
Without your watering at the roots,
To fill each branching vein?

Welcome! the Author's firmest friends,
Your voice the surest Godspeed lends.
Of you the growing mind demands
The patient care, the guiding hands,
Through all the mists of morn.
And knowing well the future's need,
Your prescient wisdom sows the seed
To flower in years unborn.


  1. No W.E.B. Du Bois today for this birthday?

  2. Yes, you are correct - it was also the birthday of W. E. B. Du Bois. I decided not to use him because his major works were published in the 20th century but I'm thinking of using him next year.