Wilde, Sir William Robert Wills (1815–76), surgeon and polymath, was born in March 1815 at Kilkeevin, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, youngest of three sons of Thomas Wilde, a local physician, and Emily Wilde (née Fynne). He attended the Royal School, Banagher, and the Diocesan School, Elphin, before becoming apprenticed (1832) to Abraham Colles (qv) at Dr Steevens’ Hospital, where his fellow students included the future novelist Charles Lever (qv), with whom he was friendly. Wilde took the letters testimonial of the RCSI (1837; FRCSI 1844), and accepted a post as physician to a wealthy invalid going on a health cruise in his private yacht Crusader. The interlude between student days and practice provided material for The narrative of a voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe, and along the shores of the Mediterranean (1839), which brought him £250, enabling him to study eye and ear surgery in London, Vienna, and Berlin. His teachers in Vienna included Frederick Jäger and his assistant Rigler at the Josephinum Academy, and Antony von Rosas in the great general hospital, the Allgemeine Krankenhaus, where classes were still conducted in Latin. Wilde has described Jäger's operations as ‘the most splendid exhibitions of eye surgery in Europe’, but regarded von Rosas as the more erudite, and a better therapist. He attended Rosas daily from 10 to 11.30 a.m., going on then to Jäger's clinic, a short distance away. In the afternoons he attended a class given in Jäger's home, open to visitors and private pupils. Wilde availed himself, too, of a private course of instruction in operating. On his return to Dublin he set up in practice at 15 Westland Row, opened a dispensary for poor patients (the forerunner of St Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital) in a converted stable, and engaged in numerous avocations. He was appointed surgeon oculist in ordinary to the queen in Ireland in 1853.
Meanwhile in 1845 Wilde agreed to take over the editorship of Ireland's leading medical periodical, the Dublin Journal of Medical Science, founded by Robert Kane (qv) and others in 1832. He assumed the duties of editor in July 1845, having already been an active contributor. His own early articles deal with disorders of the ear and the eye and with his postgraduate education. When the next two issues were completed he continued the bi-monthly journal as a quarterly, enlarging it and introducing new features. In the last issue of the Dublin Journal of Medical Science the publisher provided him with a massive general index covering vols 1–28. Wilde opened the first number of the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science with a long historical ‘Preface’ (Feb. 1846). He commissioned and edited an extensive series of articles on the famine fevers. His own ‘Observations on the epidemic ophthalmia’ (1851) opens with a swingeing attack on the local authorities, who had failed to provide suitable accommodation for those suffering from ophthalmia. ‘If it were a fatal disease [he continued], the result, according to the doctrines of some, might justify the means, – at least the mortality would lessen the expenditure; but it is not so.’ Ophthalmia rendered its victims incapable of earning their livelihood; some would never leave the workhouse, but would remain a permanent tax upon the union.
A memorial plaque at 1 Merrion Square, Dublin, his opulent residence (1855–76), lists Wilde's accomplishments: aural and ophthalmic surgeon, archaeologist, ethnologist, antiquarian, biographer, statistician, naturalist, topographer, historian, and folklorist. While accompanying his father on his rounds as a young boy, he had developed a strong interest in the folklore and topography of the west of Ireland. Elected MRIA (1839), he devoted much of his time to antiquarian research in Ireland. He became a good friend of George Petrie (qv) and together they investigated many prehistoric sites. As assistant commissioner for the 1841 and 1851 censuses, he carried out detailed research on the history of disease in Ireland. He attended meetings of the natural history and ethnology sections of the British Association for the Advancement of Science since 1839, and in September 1857 Wilde projected and organised for the association a major excursion of about seventy ethnologists and antiquaries to the Aran islands, and addressed them at Dun Aengus on Inishmore. Probably his greatest contribution in this field was the completion of the catalogue of the RIA's collection of Irish antiquities (1857–62), a task he took over from Petrie.
In the midst of these many activities he managed to maintain an active social life – he was Lord Macaulay's guide when the historian came to inspect the field of the battle of the Boyne – and had a holiday home in Connemara. His Practical observations on aural surgery (1853) helped to inaugurate otology as a new speciality, and he was commemorated eponymously for ‘Wilde's snare’ and ‘Wilde's incision’, the latter related to mastoid surgery. His books addressed to the general reader include The beauties of the Boyne (1849); Lough Corrib, its shores and islands (1867); and Memoir of Gabriel Béranger (1880), which helped to rescue Beranger's (qv) name from oblivion. He contributed biographical articles to the Dublin University Magazine and the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, commemorating Sir Thomas Molyneux (qv), Sir Henry Marsh (qv), R. J. Graves (qv) and others. He wrote movingly on Swift (qv) and Stella (qv) (The closing years of Dean Swift's life, 2nd ed., 1849) and was the first to refute the popular supposition of Swift's insanity. His later papers include interventions on behalf of men accused of sexual abuse of children.
Wilde's honours included the Order of the Polar Star, bestowed (1862) by Carl XV, king of Sweden, probably on the recommendation of the Wildes’ friend Baron von Kraemer, governor of Uppsala; a knighthood (1864) for his work in connection with Irish censuses; and the Cunningham gold medal, the RIA's highest award (1873).
Wilde's health deteriorated in 1875; he died (probably from cancer) on 19 April 1876, and was buried in the cemetery of Mount St Jerome. He married (12 November 1851) Jane Francesca Elgee (qv) (‘Speranza’ of the Nation); they had three children, William (qv), Oscar (qv), and Isola who died of fever in 1867 in her ninth year. They lived at 21 Westland Row, moving to 1 Merrion Square in 1855. Wilde is also credited with having had three children outside marriage. These were Henry Wilson (1838–77) – whom the Wilde boys spoke of as their cousin – and two girls, Emily and Mary, who were given their father's surname. They lived in Co. Monaghan with their uncle, the Rev. Ralph Wilde until their deaths in an accidental fire in 1871. This extramural family is often cited as an indication of William Wilde's promiscuous and passionate heterosexual nature. Be that as it may, the close association maintained with Henry Wilson, who qualified as a licentiate of the RCSI in 1858, and became an assistant at St Mark's Hospital and professor of ophthalmic surgery, together with Ralph Wilde's willingness to shelter Emily and Mary (the elder girl named for her grandmother), suggest that William's amours may have been less than sordid. He was most unlikely to have been the ‘runner after girls, with a lusty enjoyment of life’ portrayed by Arthur Ransome, Oscar Wilde's first biographer. His reputation also suffered as a result of a libel action taken against Lady Wilde in 1864 by Mary Travers, a hysterical young former patient, who accused him of rape. She was awarded a farthing's damages, but many were surprised that Sir William did not go into the witness box to deny her charges.