Prisoner of His Time

A piece of art depicting Oscar Wilde, part of the Neurology, Illustrated exhibition at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.John H. Bufford & Sons
Oscar Wilde Songbook
ca. 1882
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Oscar Wilde, the great playwright and novelist, lived a short and troubled life. In 1895 he was found guilty of sodomy and gross indecency, leading to a two-year prison sentence. He was already in ill-health, and the deplorable conditions of the jail did nothing to improve his situation. After his release, Wilde moved to France, where he lived in poverty. His health did not improve and a chronic ear infection spread to his brain. He was confined to his hotel room in Paris, and died of meningitis on November 30, 1900. His tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery has become a pilgrimage site for literary lovers and admirers who have covered it with hundreds of kisses.

A photo of Oscar Wilde, a piece in the Neurology, Illustrated exhibit at Tufts Medical CenterOscar Wilde was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for his witty writing. In 1890 he published his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was initially not very well-received, due to its scandalous subject matter. Wilde’s plays fared better:  his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, premiered in London on February 14, 1895, opening on Broadway just two months later, and later that year in Melbourne. George Bernard Shaw and others praised the humor and cleverness of the work. Other plays, including Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband, also proved popular. In 1882, Oscar Wilde embarked on a lecture tour of America, speaking at the Music Hall in Boston on January 31. Wilde’s influence on music is, perhaps, less well known. A number of pieces of music, from the “Oscar Polka Mazurka,” “Oscar Wilde Galop,” and “Oscar Wilde Forget-me-Not Waltzes,” were inspired by the author. One collection of these types of songs was published by Oliver Ditson & Co. of Boston, likely in 1882, following the success of Wilde’s visit to America. The cover of this collection of sheet music features a lithograph by John H. Bufford & Sons (based on a photograph by Sarony) and includes songs such as “Oscar’s Schottische” by Charles Coote and “Dream of the Lily” by Carl Uschman.

A photo of Oscar Wilde's tomb, a piece in the Neurology, Illustrated exhibit at Tufts Medical CenterOscar Wilde’s last words, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do,” are today well known. Perhaps less well-known is the cause of his untimely death at the age of 46. Wilde suffered from chronic suppurative otitis media, a condition of inflammation and recurrent infections in the ear and mastoid (the bony bump behind the ear).  Though some believe an early case of syphilis may have led to the condition, this is unlikely. More probably, his two years spent in prison, from 1895 to 1897, where he suffered from malnourishment, freezing temperatures, and deplorable hygienic conditions, lead to his worsening health. When he was released from prison in May 1897, Wilde left the British isles for France, where his health continued to deteriorate. He was low on funds and drank too much (especially absinth), and continued to suffer from earaches and headaches. In October 1900, Wilde took a turn for the worse and finally received a surgical procedure to drain some of the fluid in his mastoid. At that point, however, it was too late. The next month, on November 30, 1900, Oscar Wilde died.

William Wilde, Oscar Wilde's father.It is a sad irony of history that Wilde’s father, William Wilde, was a pioneer in the field of otology. He became known for “Wilde’s incision” in the mid-nineteenth century, a new approach to draining the ear of fluid by cutting into the mastoid behind the ear. The goal of early mastoid surgeries was to prevent the most serious complication of chronic infection, which is extension of that infection to the inside of the skull. There are three layers of tissue that are just inside the skull and that cover the brain—they are the “meninges.” When they become infected, it is “meningitis.” The fluid that is inside the meninges continuously circulates around the brain and spinal cord—it is known as “cerebrospinal fluid,” or CSF. Infection in the CSF can be a mild and minor annoyance (“aseptic,” or viral meningitis) or rapidly fatal (bacterial meningitis). Oscar Wilde’s chronic ear infection had eroded through the thin bone of the mastoid and resulted in bacterial meningitis. Mastoid surgery can help to prevent meningitis but would be useless once meningitis had occurred. Wilde’s father would surely have encouraged him to have had surgery earlier, had he not died 24 years previously. During his career, William Wilde founded a hospital for ear diseases in London that was devoted to providing “gratuitous treatment of the poorer classes.” This is a category into which Oscar had unfortunately fallen but because he had been prosecuted for “the love that dare not speak its name,” he had abandoned England for France. Unfortunately, this put him beyond the reach of his father’s charity.


Sperati, G. and D. Felisati.  “Oscar Wilde.”  Acta Otorhinolaryngol Ital 25 (2005):  381-383.

Mason, Stuart.  Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement.  New York:  Haskell House Publishers, 1972.