In spite of the importance of the paper here printed, Holmes’s reputation as a scientist was overshadowed by that won by him as a wit and a man of letters. When he was only twenty-one his “Old Ironsides” brought him into notice; and through his poetry and fiction, and the sparkling talk of the “Breakfast Table” series, he took a high place among the most distinguished group of writers that America has yet produced.
Note.—This essay appeared first in 1843, in The New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine, and was reprinted in the “Medical Essays” in 1855.
In collecting, enforcing and adding to the evidence accumulated upon this most serious subject, I would not be understood to imply that there exists a doubt in the mind of any well-informed member of the medical profession as to the fact that puerperal fever is sometimes communicated from one person to another, both directly and indirectly. In the present state of our knowledge upon this point I should consider such doubts merely as a proof that the sceptic had either not examined the evidence, or, having examined it, refused to accept its plain and unavoidable consequences. I should be sorry to think, with Dr. Rigby, that it was a case of “oblique vision”; I should be unwilling to force home the argumentum ad hominem of Dr. Blundell, but I would not consent to make a question of a momentous fact which is no longer to be considered as a subject for trivial discussions, but to be acted upon with silent promptitude. It signifies nothing that wise and experienced practitioners have sometimes doubted the reality of the danger in question; no man has the right to doubt it any longer. No negative facts, no opposing opinions, be they what they may, or whose they may, can form any answer to the series of cases now within the reach of all who choose to explore the records of medical science.
If there are some who conceive that any important end would be answered by recording such opinions, or by collecting the history of all the cases they could find in which no evidence of the influence of contagion existed, I believe they are in error. Suppose a few writers of authority can be found to profess a disbelief in contagion,—and they are very few compared with those who think differently,—is it quite clear that they formed their opinions on a view of all the facts, or is it not apparent that they relied mostly on their own solitary experience? Still further, of those whose names are quoted, is it not true that scarcely a single one could, by any possibility, have known the half or the tenth of the facts bearing on the subject which have reached such a frightful amount within the last few years? Again, as to the utility of negative facts, as we may briefly call them,—instances, namely, in which exposure has not been followed by disease,—although, like other truths, they may be worth knowing, I do