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Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes was the name of two prominent men, father and son. The elder was a poet and essayist, the younger a justice of the United States Supreme Court. While the younger might be referred to as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. or Oliver Wendell Holmes II, in practice they are both commonly known simply as Oliver Wendell Holmes, as their prominence was in separate fields.

Oliver Wendell Holmes the elder, (August 29, 1809 - October 8,1894) was a physician by profession but achieved fame as a writer; he was one of the best regarded American poets of the 19th century.

He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of a minister. He was educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and at Harvard University. He first attained national prominence with his poem Old Ironsides about the 18th century battleship USS Constitution which was to be broken up for scrap; the poem generated public sentiment that resulted in the historic ship being preserved as a monument.

He went to Paris for three years to study medicine, then returned to get his doctorate at Harvard in 1836, the same year the first book of his verse was published. He then became a professor of anatomy and physiology at Dartmouth University.

He was a contributor of essays and poems to the Atlantic Monthly from its inception, and also published novels.

Holmes died in Boston, Massachusetts.

Oliver Wendell Holmes the younger, (March 8, 1841 - March 6, 1935) was an American jurist noted for his progressive decisions, often contrary to that of other judges of his time. He was called The Great Dissenter.

Holmes was born in Boston, the son of the prominent writer and physician of the same name. He graduated from Harvard in 1861 and then joined the United States Army in the American Civil War. He saw much action, and suffered wounds at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, Antietam and the Second Battle of Fredericksburg. He was mustered out in 1864 as a brevet lieutenant-colonel.

One Civil War story is well known: In July, 1864, the Confederates got north of Washington, D.C, and Abraham Lincoln came out to see the troops. At six foot four, with his stovepipe hat adding eight inches to his height, Lincoln stood on the parapet, watching smoke puffs from Confederate snipers, seemingly unafraid, even when an officer three feet from him was dropped by a Confederate bullet. A 23-year old Oliver Wendall Holmes saw this foolhardy target sticking up, and not realizing it was the President of the United States, shouted, "Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!" Lincoln prompty obeyed.

Holmes then returned to Harvard to study law, being admitted to the bar in 1866, and went into practice in Boston.

In 1870 he became editor of the American Law Review. In 1881 he published the first edition of his well regarded book The Common Law. In 1882 he became both a professor at Harvard Law School and a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In 1899 he was appointed chief justice of the state court. He became known for his innovative, well reasoned decisions, balancing property rights with human rights, with the latter taking precedence over the former. He was one of the first to recognize workers' right to organize trade unions as long as no violence or coercion was involved, contrary to some earlier decisions by others who had argued that organized labor was by nature illegal.

In 1902 he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court, where he was known for his liberal opinions. (His decision in Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), where he justified mandatory sterilization of the retarded with the words "[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough," is a notable exception.) He served until January 12, 1932, when his fellow brethren on the court, citing his advanced age (Holmes, at 90, was the oldest serving justice in the Court's history), hesitantly requested that he step down, which he complied with. He died in Washington, D.C in 1935.

The 1951 Hollywood motion picture "The Magnificent Yankee" was based on a play about his life.