Students, faculty, and alumni from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine are calling for the renaming of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Society, citing the racist actions of its namesake.
One of the five academic societies that students are assigned to upon entering HMS or HSDM, the Holmes Society is named after Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Class of 1829, a writer, physician, and former Dean of Harvard Medical School.
Holmes was one of the first American intellectuals to promote the openly racist doctrine of eugenics. In 1850, he revoked the acceptances of the Medical School’s first three Black students, writing that the “intermixing of the white and black races in their lecture rooms is distasteful to a large portion of the class and injurious to the interests of the school.”
The petition — which has already garnered roughly 850 signatures — proposes the Medical School rename the society given Holmes’s “promotion of eugenics and his violence toward Black and Indigenous peoples.”
“It is simply unjust we ask our Black and Indigenous students to sit in a classroom and learn in a society named after an individual who was an avid proponent of their oppression and denier of their humanity,” the petition reads. “The Holmes name has far too long been accepted as a toxic fixture in our academic environment, and it is time for our HMS/HSDM community to demonstrate that the lives of Black students truly do matter.”
Jalen A. Benson, the creator of the petition and a member of the Holmes Society, said he first learned about Holmes’s history during a pre-orientation program at Harvard Medical School.
“From my beginning time at Harvard, I knew that I was in this society named after someone who never thought in the first place I deserve or should be at Harvard or any higher institution in the first place,” Benson said.
LaShyra T. Nolen, the author of the petition and Class of 2023 HMS student council president, said while this is not the first time student-activists have demanded the renaming of the Holmes Society, she and Benson are hopeful the petition may be more successful in effecting change.
“I think that right now there's just been so much energy and there's been so much attention being paid to issues of racial justice and equity on campuses across the nation and pretty much everywhere,” Nolen said. “I think the power of this moment is that right now, racism and issues of race are at the forefront of a lot of administrators’ and leaders' minds, and I think often it tends to be an afterthought.”
Specifically, the petition asks the Medical School replaces Holmes’s name with that of “an individual from an underrepresented group in medicine that has achieved excellence, inspired hope, and uplifted their community.”
“This person should not be yet another one of the typical cis-gendered white males that have been traditionally lauded as the sole contributors to medicine and hold pseudo monology on the halls of our institution,” the petition reads.
HMS professor Anthony V. D’Amico, who heads the Holmes Society, wrote in an emailed statement that the Medical School remains committed to furthering its “central tenets” of diversity and inclusion.
“Among those, last year HMS convened an Arts and Representation Committee to consider the school’s history, current spaces and symbols and how each impacts the school’s mission,” D’Amico wrote in an emailed statement. “The petition to rename the Holmes Society will be considered by the committee in this context.”
Nolen said that while organizers primarily designed the petition to bring about the renaming of the Holmes Society, she believes the issue of racism within medicine and medical education requires more “proactive work and attention.”
“We are supposed to be trained to be healers, and if all of our healers think a certain way or look a certain way, what does that mean for how we're going to be able to serve a diverse patient population who has specific needs and different perspectives?” Nolen said.
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at email@example.com.