Sir William Robert Wills Wilde MD, FRCSI, (March 1815 – 19 April 1876) was an Irish eye and ear surgeon, as well as an author of significant works on medicine, archaeology and folklore, particularly concerning his native Ireland. He was the father of Oscar Wilde.
Early life and career
William Wilde was born at Kilkeevin, near Castlerea, in County Roscommon, the youngest of the three sons and two daughters of a prominent local medical practitioner, Thomas Wills Wilde, and his wife, Amelia (d. c.1844), and received his initial education at the Elphin Diocesan School in Elphin, County Roscommon. In 1832, Wilde was bound as an apprentice to Abraham Colles, the pre-eminent Irish surgeon of the day, at Dr Steevens' Hospital in Dublin. He was also taught by the surgeons James Cusack and Sir Philip Crampton and the physician Sir Henry Marsh. Wilde also studied at the private and highly respected school of anatomy, medicine, and surgery in Park Street (later Lincoln Place), Dublin. In 1837, he earned his medical degree from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. In the same year, Wilde embarked on an eight-month-cruise to the Holy Land with a recovering patient, visiting various cities and islands throughout the Mediterranean. Porpoises were flung on board the ship, Crusader, and Wilde dissected them. Taking notes, he eventually composed a two-volume book on the nursing habits of the creatures. Among the places he visited on this tour was Egypt. In a tomb he found the mummified remains of a dwarf and salvaged the torso to bring back to Ireland. He also collected embalmed ibises. Once back in Ireland, Wilde published an article in the Dublin University Magazine suggesting that one of the "Cleopatra's Needles" be transported to England (eventually in 1878 one of the Needles was transported to London, and in 1880 the other one was brought to New York's Central Park). He was awarded a knighthood in 1864 for his medical contributions and his involvement with the Irish census – he had been appointed medical commissioner to the Irish census in 1841. In 1845, he became editor of the Dublin Journal of Medical Science, to which he contributed many articles.
He ran his own hospital, St Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital for Diseases of the Eye and Ear, in Dublin and was appointed to serve as Oculist-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria. At one point, Wilde performed surgery on the father of another famous Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw.
Wilde had a very successful medical practice and was assisted in it by his natural son, Henry Wilson, who had been trained in Dublin, Vienna, Heidelberg, Berlin, and Paris. Wilson's presence enabled Wilde to travel and he visited Scandinavia, where he received an honorary degree from Uppsala, and was welcomed in Stockholm by Anders Retzius, among others. King Karl XV of Sweden conferred on him the Nordstjärneorden (Order of the North Star).
Marriage and children
Wilde married the poet Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee in 1851, who wrote and published under the name of Speranza. The couple had two sons: Willie and Oscar Wilde, and a daughter, Isola Francesca, who died in childhood. In addition to his children with his wife, Sir William Wilde was the father of three children born out of wedlock before his marriage: Henry Wilson, born in 1838, and Emily and Mary Wilde, born in 1847 and 1849, respectively, of different parentage to Henry. Sir William acknowledged paternity of his illegitimate children and provided for their education, but they were reared by his relatives rather than with his wife and legitimate children.
In 1864, Wilde was knighted, but his reputation suffered when Mary Travers, a long-term patient of his and the daughter of a colleague, claimed that he had seduced her two years earlier. She wrote a pamphlet crudely parodying Wilde and Lady Wilde as Dr and Mrs Quilp, and portraying Dr Quilp as the rapist of a female patient anaesthetised under chloroform. She handed these out outside the building where Wilde was about to give a public lecture. Lady Wilde complained to Mary's father, Robert Travers, which resulted in Mary bringing a libel case against her. Mary Travers won her case but was awarded a mere farthing in damages by the jury. Legal costs of £2,000 were awarded against Lady Wilde. The case was the talk of all Dublin, and Wilde's refusal to enter the witness box during the trial was widely held against him as ungentlemanly behaviour.
From this time onwards, Wilde began to withdraw from Dublin to the west of Ireland, where he had started in 1864 to build what became Moytura, his house overlooking Lough Corrib in Connemara. He died aged 61 in 1876, and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.
- The Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe, and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, 1840.
- The beauties of the Boyne and the Blackwater, 1849.
- Practical observations on aural surgery and the nature and treatment of diseases of the ear, 1853.
- Lough Corrib, its Shores and Islands, first published in 1867.
- The closing years of the life of Dean Swift.
- The Epidemics of Ireland.
- Victorian Doctor: the Life of Sir William Wilde. T. G. Wilson (Methuen, London, 1942.)
- James McGeachie, 'Wilde, Sir William Robert Wills (1815–1876)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Barbara Belford, 'Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius', Random House, Inc., 2000
- Richard Ellmann, ‘Oscar Wilde’, Vintage Books, New York, 1988 ISBN 978-0-394-75984-5
- Jonathan Fryer, Wilde Haus Publishing, 2005 ISBN 1-904341-11-X
- Terence de Vere White, 'The Parents of Oscar Wilde' London: Hodder & Stoughton (1967)
- Online text of Lough Corrib
- Wilde in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Wilde in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography