Skip to main content
No. 1013:
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way,
It ran a hundred years to a day?

The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, doctor, poet, writer, and jurist, was, of course, two people -- a father and a son with the same name. The elder Holmes was born to a New-England Calvinist minister in 1809. He studied medicine at Harvard, then went on to do research. His verbal brilliance may've cost him the focus you need to be a great scientist. Once he wrote, "I like nine-tenths of any matter I study but I do not like to lick the plate."

His love of words may've come from his stepmother -- a fine wit herself who lived to 93. She once told him, "Life is a fatal complaint, and an eminently contagious one." That curious remark is mirrored by one of Holmes's best contributions.

In 1843 he took just 21 days to dash off a monograph: The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever. That dreaded childbirth disease was killing mothers at an alarming rate. While the concept of contagion and the existence of germs were known, no one had connected the two. Worse yet, contagion carried the same aura of moral deficiency that some people still attach to it.

One distinguished doctor, commenting on Holmes's ideas, wrote,

I prefer to attribute [these deaths] to accident, or Providence, of which I can form a clear conception, rather than to contagion of which I cannot form any clear idea.

So Holmes's colleagues pooh-poohed his idea that childbirth fever might be contagious. Four years later the combative Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, also suggested contagion. But he offered effective means for fighting it. "Wash your hands," Semmelweis demanded. And it worked, though no one knew why.

Holmes fought other battles people weren't ready for. He tried to get women into medical school. He fought anti-Semitism. But he wouldn't support abolition, because he'd turned against Calvinism, and Calvinists were deeply opposed to slavery. Abolitionsim struck him as Calvinist self-righteousness. At the same time, his son, the Supreme Court chief-justice-to-be, went off to fight for the Union cause in the Civil War. He was wounded three times and very lucky to come home alive.

But still, Holmes understood the folly of trying to live a logically consistent life. It shows in his poem about the wonderful one-hoss shay. That shay was so perfectly built it lasted a hundred years to the day. Then it wore out all at once and collapsed into a pile of dust. What a wrenching metaphor for the doctor's hopeless ideal of keeping quality in human life -- to the end!

But Holmes came close. He lived to 85. Then, one day, sitting and talking with his son, he simply stopped breathing. Like the wonderful shay, he too wore out all at once.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Tilton, E.M., Amiable Autocrat: A Biography of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Henry Schuman, 1947.

Holmes, O.W., Medical Essays, 1842-1882. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1901, Chapter II, The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever.

Fine articles on both Oliver Wendell Holmeses are found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I am also grateful to Stanley Reiser, University of Texas Medical School, for his counsel on Holmes.

Episode 1285 might offer additional insight into Holmes' use of the shay as a metaphor.

The Deacon's Masterpiece or, The Wonderful 'One-Hoss Shay'

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way,
It ran a hundred years to a day?
And then, of a sudden, it -- ah, but stay,
I'll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits, --
Have you ever heard of that, I say? . . .

Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
There is always somewhere a weakest spot, --
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, thoroughbrace, -- lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will, --
Above or below, or within or without, --
And that's the reason, beyond a doubt,
That a chaise breaks down, but doesn't wear out.

Then the Deacon swore (as Deacons do,
With an 'I dew vum,' or an 'I tell yeou')
He would build one shay to beat the taown
'n' the keounty 'n' all the kentry raoun';
It should be so built that it couldn't break daown:
'Fur,' said the Deacon, ''t's mighty plain
Thut the weakes' place mus' stan' the strain;
'n' the way t' fix it, uz I maintain,
Is only jest
T' make that place us strong us the rest.' . . .

. . .

All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill.
First a shiver and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a a spill, --
And the parson was sitting upon a rock, . . .
What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it has been to the mill and ground! . . .

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That's all I say.

--- O. W. Holmes


From the August, 1895, Century Magazine.