Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

1809 – 1894

Dr. Holmes was an American physician, professor, and novelist who injected a scientific rationality into the Weird stories he penned. In the field of medicinal practice, he posited the notion that doctors could potentially spread diseases from patient to patient (a controversial proposition at the time), and he is credited with coining the term “anesthesia.” He regarded as one of the Fireside Poets, and was a close companion of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

As the Dean of the Harvard Medical School, Holmes attempted, and ultimately failed, to admit and graduate the first African American and female students; Harriot Kezia Hunt was ultimately asked to withdraw her application (no female students would be admitted to the Medical School until 1945), and Martin Delany, a contemporary and friend of Frederick Douglass, was accepted but expelled (along with two other newly admitted African Americans) after one semester, due to an outcry from the otherwise entirely White student body.

Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny (first published serially as “The Professor’s Story” 1859) tells of Bernard Langdon, an aspiring medical student earning money by teaching at the Apollinean Female Institute. He meets an unusual and neurotic young girl, Elsie, who takes a fancy to him. As an otherwise melodramatic plot unfolds (a boy fakes his affection for Elsie to marry into inheritance, and becomes incensed by her interest in Langdon; he is eventually run out of town for shenanigans), Langdon pursues a growing medical interest in the girl after she saves him from a poised-to-strike rattlesnake simply by giving the snake a look. In the end, Langdon deduces that, after her mother was bitten by a poisonous snake in the last stage of pregnancy, Elsie’s essence was compromised by the envenomation, and she is, in fact, only partially human, her other aspect being that of a snake. When Langdon finally reveals to her that he does not reciprocate romantic feelings, Elsie falls ill, and dies.

Holmes considered the work to be an exploration of, and philosophical struggle with, the doctrine of original sin.

Elsie Venner: a Romance of Destiny