Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilde, William Robert Wills

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Contains the sub-article for his wife, Jane Francisca Elgee

WILDE, Sir WILLIAM ROBERT WILLS (1815–1876), surgeon and Irish antiquary, was born in 1815 in the small town of Castlerea, co. Roscommon. His grandfather, Ralph Wilde, was the son of a Durham merchant who, on being appointed agent for some property in Roscommon, settled at Castlerea, and married an Irish lady named O'Flynn. His father was Dr. Thomas Wilde, who had an extensive general practice in the district, and his mother was a Miss Fynn, a member of an old Galway family. Having been educated at the royal school of Banagher, and afterwards at the diocesan school of Elphin, he began his surgical studies in Dublin in 1832, when he was appointed a resident pupil in Steevens's Hospital. After obtaining his diploma as a surgeon in 1837, he spent nine months in charge of an invalid patient on board a yacht. This led to the publication of his first book, ‘The Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe, and along the Shores of the Mediterranean’ (Dublin, 1840, 2 vols. 8vo; 2nd edit. Dublin, 1844). He subsequently spent three years in the study of the aural and ophthalmic branches of his profession at London, Berlin, and Vienna; and, settling in Dublin in 1841, he soon established a large and lucrative practice as an oculist and aurist. He applied the first thousand pounds he earned at his profession to founding the St. Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital, Dublin; and throughout his career gave his services gratuitously to the poor, afflicted with diseases of the eye or ear, who visited him in large numbers from all parts of Ireland.

Wilde was deeply devoted to the advancement of medical science. He founded and edited the ‘Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science.’ His works, ‘Epidemic Ophthalmia’ (1851) and ‘Aural Surgery’ (1853), extended the boundaries of two obscure and intricate branches of medical science; and obtained for him in 1853 the appointment of surgeon-oculist in ordinary to the queen in Ireland—a post which was specially created in his honour. He wrote several books and magazine articles on other branches of medicine and anatomy, and also on natural history and ethnology; but it is in the field of Irish antiquities and topography that he won, as a writer, his greatest renown. He wrote in three volumes a descriptive ‘Catalogue of the Contents of the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy’—the first volume appearing in 1858—which is a monumental work of archæological erudition and insight. His topographical works, ‘The Beauties of the Boyne and the Blackwater’ (1849) and ‘Lough Corrib and Lough Mask’ (1867), deal with districts rich in scenic attractions, historic associations, and antiquarian treasures. He also published in 1849 his interesting little book on ‘The Closing Years of the Life of Dean Swift,’ with the object of refuting the statement that Swift was insane at the end of his career.

In 1841 Wilde was appointed medical commissioner for the Irish census. In connection with the census report of 1851 he wrote a blue-book on ‘The Epidemics of Ireland;’ in it he gives an account of the pestilences by which the country was recorded to have been visited from the earliest times. In 1864 he was knighted by the Irish viceroy, the Earl of Carlisle, for his services to statistical science, especially in connection with the Irish census; and for his labours in antiquarian and archæological fields the Royal Irish Academy presented him in 1873 with the Cunningham gold medal, the highest honour in its gift. He died in Dublin on 19 April 1876, and was buried in St. Jerome's cemetery.

Wilde married, in 1851, Jane Francisca Elgee, daughter of an episcopalian clergyman, and left two sons—William Wilde, a journalist, who died in London in 1898; and Mr. Oscar Wilde.

Lady Wilde (1826–1896), born at Wexford in 1826, fell under the influence of the nationalist doctrines of ‘The Nation’ about 1845, and contributed to it prose and verse under the pseudonym of ‘Speranza’ until its suppression for sedition in 1848. The last issue of that journal contained an article from her pen entitled ‘Jacta alea est,’ appealing to the young men of Ireland to take up arms, and the crown relied on this essay in its unsuccessful prosecution of the editor, Charles Gavan Duffy, for sedition. She removed to London after the death of her husband, was granted in 1890 a pension of 50l. a year from the civil list ‘in recognition of her services to literature,’ died on 3 Feb. 1896, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. Among her published works are:

  1. ‘Poems by Speranza,’ 1871.
  2. ‘Driftwood from Scandinavia,’ 1884.
  3. ‘Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland’ (2 vols. 1887), which includes a paper by her husband on ‘The Ancient Races of Ireland,’ read by him to the anthropological section of the British Association at Belfast, 1874.
  4. ‘Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland,’ 1890.
  5. ‘Notes on Men, Women, and Books,’ 1891.
  6. ‘Social Studies,’ 1893.

She also published in 1880—writing the concluding portion which had been left unfinished—her husband's ‘Memoir of Gabriel Beranger,’ a Frenchman who resided in Dublin during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and was an authority on Irish antiquities.

[Dublin University Magazine, May 1875, which contains a portrait of Sir William Wilde; the Irish newspapers, April 1876; personal knowledge.]

M. MacD.