A Mortal Antipathy

Oliver Wendell Holmes
Mortal Antipathy, by Oliver
Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Project Gutenberg's A Mortal Antipathy, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
[The Physician and Poet, not his son the Jurist O. W. Holmes, Jr.]
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Title: A Mortal Antipathy
Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Release Date: August 16, 2006 [EBook #2698]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ASCII

Produced by David Widger

By Oliver Wendell Holmes

"A MORTAL ANTIPATHY" was a truly hazardous experiment. A
very wise and very distinguished physician who is as much at home in
literature as he is in science and the practice of medicine, wrote to me
in referring to this story: "I should have been afraid of my subject." He
did not explain himself, but I can easily understand that he felt the
improbability of the physiological or pathological occurrence on which
the story is founded to be so great that the narrative could hardly be
rendered plausible. I felt the difficulty for myself as well as for my
readers, and it was only by recalling for our consideration a series of
extraordinary but well-authenticated facts of somewhat similar
character that I could hope to gain any serious attention to so strange a
I need not recur to these wonderful stories. There is, however, one, not
to be found on record elsewhere, to which I would especially call the
reader's attention. It is that of the middle-aged man, who assured me
that he could never pass a tall hall clock without an indefinable terror.
While an infant in arms the heavy weight of one of these tall clocks had
fallen with aloud crash and produced an impression on his nervous
system which he had never got over.
The lasting effect of a shock received by the sense of sight or that of
hearing is conceivable enough.
But there is another sense, the nerves of which are in close relation with
the higher organs of consciousness. The strength of the associations
connected with the function of the first pair of nerves, the olfactory, is
familiar to most persons in their own experience and as related by
others. Now we know that every human being, as well as every other
living organism, carries its own distinguishing atmosphere. If a man's
friend does not know it, his dog does, and can track him anywhere by it.
This personal peculiarity varies with the age and conditions of the
individual. It may be agreeable or otherwise, a source of attraction or
repulsion, but its influence is not less real, though far less obvious and

less dominant, than in the lower animals. It was an atmospheric
impression of this nature which associated itself with a terrible shock
experienced by the infant which became the subject of this story. The
impression could not be outgrown, but it might possibly be broken up
by some sudden change in the nervous system effected by a cause as
potent as the one which had produced the disordered condition.
This is the best key that I can furnish to a story which must have
puzzled some, repelled others, and failed to interest many who did not
suspect the true cause of the mysterious antipathy.
BEVERLY FARMS, MASS., August, 1891. O. W. H.


"And why the New Portfolio, I would ask?"
Pray, do you remember, when there was an accession to the nursery in
which you have a special interest, whether the new-comer was
commonly spoken of as a baby? Was it not, on the contrary, invariably,
under all conditions, in all companies, by the whole household, spoken
of as the baby? And was the small receptacle provided for it commonly
spoken of as a cradle; or was it not always called the cradle, as if there
were no other in existence?
Now this New Portfolio is the cradle in which I am to rock my
new-born thoughts, and from which I am to lift them carefully and
show them to callers, namely, to the whole family of readers belonging
to my list of intimates, and such other friends as may drop in by
accident. And so it shall have the definite article, and not be lost in the
mob of its fellows as a portfolio.

There are a few personal and incidental matters of which I wish to say
something before reaching the contents of the Portfolio, whatever these
may be. I have had other portfolios before this,--two, more
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