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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index H > Oliver Wendell Holmes Quotes

Oliver Wendell Holmes
(29 Aug 1809 - 7 Oct 1894)

American physician and writer who was best-known as an essayist poet. His 1843 article on childbed fever sparked controversy for asserting that physicians and nurses, or midwives, transferred the infection between women giving birth.

Science Quotes by Oliver Wendell Holmes (30 quotes)

Lepidoptera are for children to play with, pretty to look at, so some think. Give me the Coleoptera, and the kings of the Coleoptera are the beetles! Lepidoptera and Neuroptera for little folks; Coleoptera for men, sir!
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
In 'The Poet at the Breakfast Table: III', The Atlantic Monthly (Mar 1872), 29, 344.
Science quotes on:  |  Beetle (9)  |  Butterfly (20)  |  Child (245)  |  Entomology (9)  |  Fly (99)  |  Give (200)  |  King (32)  |  Little (184)  |  Man (373)  |  Play (110)  |  Pretty (20)  |  Think (341)

A man may fulfill the object of his existence by asking a question he cannot answer, and attempting a task he cannot achieve.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Quoted in Kim Lim (ed.), 1,001 Pearls of Spiritual Wisdom: Words to Enrich, Inspire, and Guide Your Life (2014), 121
Science quotes on:  |  Achieve (63)  |  Answer (249)  |  Ask (157)  |  Attempt (121)  |  Existence (296)  |  Fulfill (19)  |  Object (169)  |  Question (404)  |  Task (83)

A man of very moderate ability may be a good physician, if he devotes himself faithfully to the work.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Science quotes on:  |  Ability (107)  |  Devote (34)  |  Faithfully (3)  |  Good (345)  |  Moderate (6)  |  Physician (241)  |  Work (626)

A mind that is stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Science quotes on:  |  Dimension (38)  |  Idea (577)  |  Mind (743)

A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
In 'Iris, Her Book', The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860, 1892), 239.

A patent is property carried to the highest degree of abstraction—a right in rem to exclude, without a physical object or content.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Homes-Pollock Letters (1946), edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe, Vol. 1, 53. In Eugene C. Gerhart, Quote it Completely! (1998), 802.
Science quotes on:  |  Law (513)  |  Patent (25)

As for the excellent little wretches who grow up in what they are taught, with never a scruple or a query, ... they signify nothing in the intellectual life of the race.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'Poet at the Breakfast-Table', The Atlantic Monthly (Oct 1872), 429.
Science quotes on:  |  Intellect (188)  |  Learning (177)  |  Life (1124)  |  Nothing (385)  |  Query (3)  |  Scruple (2)  |  Significance (71)  |  Teaching (107)  |  Wretch (4)

As knowledge advances, science ceases to scoff at religion; and religion ceases to frown on science. The hour of mockery by the one, and of reproof by the other, is passing away. Henceforth, they will dwell together in unity and goodwill. They will mutually illustrate the wisdom, power, and grace of God. Science will adorn and enrich religion; and religion will ennoble and sanctify science.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
In Tryon Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (1908), 505.
Science quotes on:  |  Advance (162)  |  Cease (37)  |  Dwell (15)  |  Ennoble (8)  |  Enrich (11)  |  Frown (5)  |  God (535)  |  Goodwill (4)  |  Grace (17)  |  Hour (71)  |  Illustrate (9)  |  Knowledge (1293)  |  Mockery (2)  |  Mutual (27)  |  Mutually (7)  |  Pass (91)  |  Power (358)  |  Religion (239)  |  Reproof (2)  |  Sanctify (3)  |  Science (2043)  |  Science And Religion (302)  |  Scoff (4)  |  Together (77)  |  Unity (53)  |  Wisdom (180)

Certitude is not the test of certainty. We have been cocksure of many things that are not so.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
In 'Natural Law', The Harvard Law Review, 32, (1918). In Oliver Wendell Holmes and Harold Joseph Laski, Collected Legal Papers (1920), 311.
Science quotes on:  |  Certainty (129)  |  Certitude (5)  |  Cocksure (2)  |  Test (124)

Descartes … commanded the future from his study more than Napoleon from his throne.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Paraphrased from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Montesquieu: A Critical and Biographical Introduction to “The Spirit of the Laws” (1900), xiv. The context referred to “Montesquieu … a lonely scholar sitting in a library. Like Descartes or Kant, he commanded the future from his study more than Napoléon from his throne.”
Science quotes on:  |  Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (19)  |  Command (27)  |  René Descartes (81)  |  Future (284)  |  Study (461)  |  Throne (7)

Go on, fair Science; soon to thee
Shall Nature yield her idle boast;
Her vulgar lingers formed a tree,
But thou hast trained it to a post.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'The meeting of the Dryads' (1830), Poems (1891), 152.
Science quotes on:  |  Nature (1211)  |  Poem (91)  |  Science (2043)

Heads I win, tails you lose.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860), 176.
Science quotes on:  |  Chance (159)

I was just going to say, when I was interrupted, that one of the many ways of classifying minds is under the heads of arithmetical and algebraical intellects. All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2+2=4. Every philosophical proposition has the more general character of the expression a+b=c. We are mere operatives, empirics, and egotists, until we learn to think in letters instead of figures.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858), 1.
Science quotes on:  |  Algebra (92)  |  Arithmetic (115)  |  Classification (85)  |  Formula (79)  |  Wisdom (180)

I would never use a long word, even, where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who “ligate” arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'Scholastic and Bedside Teaching', Introductory Lecture to the Medical Class of Harvard University (6 Nov 1867). In Medical Essays 1842-1882 (1891), 302.
Science quotes on:  |  Nomenclature (138)  |  Surgery (43)  |  Word (299)

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit for continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccinations is broad enough to cover cutting Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Chief Justice Holmes contributed this opinion to the judgment by which the sterilization law of Virginia was declared constitutional. Quoted from Journal of Heredity (1927), 18, 495. In Henry Ernest Sigerist, Civilization and Disease (1970), 105.
Science quotes on:  |  Eugenics (4)  |  Imbecility (5)

It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
In The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1892), 264.

Kant … commanded the future from his study more than Napoleon from his throne.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Paraphrased from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Montesquieu: A Critical and Biographical Introduction to “The Spirit of the Laws” (1900), xiv. The context referred to “Montesquieu … a lonely scholar sitting in a library. Like Descartes or Kant, he commanded the future from his study more than Napoléon from his throne.”
Science quotes on:  |  Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (19)  |  Command (27)  |  Future (284)  |  Immanuel Kant (49)  |  Study (461)  |  Throne (7)

Knowledge—it excites prejudices to call it science—is advancing as irresistibly, as majestically, as remorselessly as the ocean moves in upon the shore.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'The Poet at the Breakfast-Table', Chapter 10. The Atlantic Monthly (Oct 1872), 30, 428.
Science quotes on:  |  Knowledge (1293)  |  Science (2043)

Man’s mind once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Science quotes on:  |  Dimension (38)  |  Mind (743)  |  New Ideas (16)  |  Original (57)  |  Regain (2)  |  Stretch (18)

No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
In 'The Poet at the Breakfast Table: II', The Atlantic Monthly (Feb 1872), 29, 231.
Science quotes on:  |  Call (127)  |  Entomologist (5)  |  Grasp (59)  |  Man (373)  |  Nomenclature (138)  |  Single (119)  |  Subject (235)  |  Vast (88)

O, what a precious book the one would be
That taught observers what they’re not to see!
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Poem 'A Rhymed Lesson', from 'Urania', delivered before the Boston Mercantile Library Association (14 Oct 1846), collected in The Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1880), 58.
Science quotes on:  |  Book (257)  |  Observer (42)  |  Precious (31)  |  See (369)  |  Taught (4)

One-story intellects, two-story intellects, three-story intellects with skylights. All fact-collectors, who have no aim beyond their facts, are one-story men. Two-story men compare, reason, generalize, using the labors of the fact-collectors as well as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict; their best illumination comes from above, through the skylight. There are minds with large ground-floors, that can store an infinite amount of knowledge; some librarians, for instance, who know enough of books to help other people, without being able to make much other use of their knowledge, have intellects of this class. Your great working lawyer has two spacious stories; his mind is clear, because his mental floors are large, and he has room to arrange his thoughts so that lie can get at them,—facts below, principles above, and all in ordered series; poets are often narrow below, incapable of clear statement, and with small power of consecutive reasoning, but full of light, if sometimes rather bare of furniture, in the attics.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1883), 50.
Science quotes on:  |  Collector (9)  |  Comparison (61)  |  Fact (725)  |  Furniture (8)  |  Generalization (41)  |  Idealization (3)  |  Illumination (12)  |  Infinite (128)  |  Intellect (188)  |  Knowledge (1293)  |  Labor (71)  |  Lawyer (21)  |  Librarian (2)  |  Light (345)  |  Mind (743)  |  Narrow (48)  |  Order (239)  |  Poet (78)  |  Prediction (71)  |  Principle (285)  |  Reason (454)  |  Store (21)  |  Story (72)  |  Thought (536)

Science ... in other words, knowledge—is not the enemy of religion; for, if so, then religion would mean ignorance. But it is often the antagonist of school-divinity.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'The Professor at the Breakfast Table', The Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1859, 1891), Vol. 2, 113.
Science quotes on:  |  Ignorance (213)  |  Knowledge (1293)  |  Science And Religion (302)

Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for a man’s upper chamber, if he has common sense on the ground floor. But if a man hasn’t got plenty of good common sense, the more science he has the worse for his patient.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'The Poet at the Breakfast-Table', Chapter 5. The Atlantic Monthly (May 1872), 29, 607.
Science quotes on:  |  Common Sense (126)  |  Quip (80)  |  Science (2043)

Science is the topography of ignorance. From a few elevated points we triangulate vast spaces, inclosing infinite unknown details. We cast the lead, and draw up a little sand from abysses we may never reach with our dredges.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'Border Lines of Knowledge in Some Provinces of Medical Science', an introductory lecture to the Medical Class of Harvard University (6 Nov 1861). In Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1892), 211.
Science quotes on:  |  Ignorance (213)  |  Research (589)  |  Science (2043)

The crack-brained bobolink courts his crazy mate,
Posed on a bulrush tipsy with his weight.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
In poem, 'Spring', collected in Grandmother's Story: And Other Poems (1883, 1903), 75.
Science quotes on:  |  Court (20)  |  Crazy (17)  |  Mate (6)  |  Ornithology (21)  |  Pose (9)  |  Weight (75)

Throw out opium, which the Creator himself seems to prescribe, for we often see the scarlet poppy growing in the cornfields, as if it were foreseen that wherever there is hunger to be fed there must also be a pain to be soothed; throw out a few specifics which our art did not discover, and it is hardly needed to apply; throw out wine, which is a food, and the vapors which produce the miracle of anaesthesia, and I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica [medical drugs], as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind,—and all the worse for the fishes.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'Currents and Counter-Currents in Medical Science', Address to Massachusetts Medical Society (30 May 1860). In Medical Essays 1842-1882 (1891), 202-3.
Science quotes on:  |  Anaesthesia (3)  |  Drug (43)  |  Food (152)  |  Hunger (14)  |  Opium (5)  |  Pain (100)  |  Wine (28)

We can make an exception of opium “which the creator seems to prescribe, as we often see the scarlet poppy growing in the corn fields” but all other receipts of Omniscience must be condemned. The purple fox-glove, the many-tinted veratrum the lilac stramonium they are all “'noxious” but a little opium it helps the imagination.
[Criticizing the medical use of noxious psychoactive drugs.]
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'Dr. Holmes vs. the Medical Profession', a summary of his address to the Anniversary Meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society (May 1860), in Maryland and Virginia Medical Journal reprinted in American Medical Gazette and Journal of Health? (Oct 1860), 11, 757.
Science quotes on:  |  Condemnation (15)  |  Creator (52)  |  Drug (43)  |  Field (170)  |  Imagination (268)  |  Noxious (2)  |  Omniscience (3)  |  Opium (5)

We must study man as we have studied stars and rocks.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
'Poet at the Breakfast-Table', The Atlantic Monthly (Oct 1872), 429.
Science quotes on:  |  Man (373)  |  Rock (125)  |  Star (336)  |  Study (461)

[A comparison] of the mind of a bigot to the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour on it, the more it contracts.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
In The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858), 167. Holmes continued by writing that he was renouncing any claim to being the first to utter that idea, having been shown “that it occurs in a Preface to certain Political Poems of Thomas Moore’s.” He also wrote he was sensitive to charges of plagiarism, but, nevertheless, he asserted that when he uttered it, it was with the belief that it was his own novel idea. But, “It is impossible to tell, in a great many cases, whether a comparison which suddenly suggests itself is a new conception or a recollection.” Moore had written in Corruption and Intolerance (1808) that “The minds of some men, like the pupil of the human eye, contract themselves the more, the stronger light there is shed upon them.”
Science quotes on:  |  Bigot (4)  |  Comparison (61)  |  Contract (11)  |  Eye (218)  |  Light (345)  |  Mind (743)  |  Pupil (31)

Quotes by others about Oliver Wendell Holmes (1)

It was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who likened the bigot to the pupil of the human eye: the more light you expose it to the narrower it grows.
Ashley Montagu (ed.), Science and Creationism (1984), Introduction, 8.
Science quotes on:  |  Bigot (4)  |  Expose (16)  |  Eye (218)  |  Grow (98)  |  Human (548)  |  Light (345)  |  Narrow (48)  |  Pupil (31)

See also:
  • 29 Aug - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Holmes's birth.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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