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What Sir William Wilde can teach us about the pandemic

By Prof Brendan Kelly - 07th Jan 2024

Sir William Wilde

Oscar’s father identified a pattern in epidemics that affected Ireland over previous centuries

Sir William Wilde was a doctor, scholar, writer, and celebrated figure in 19th Century Dublin. He is, perhaps, best known as father of the playwright Oscar Wilde. But William deserves recognition in his own right as a major contributor to Irish medicine and a significant figure in the history of Irish thought.

The plaque on William’s home at 1 Merrion Square, now American College Dublin, lists his roles: “Sir William Robert Willis Wilde, 1815-1876, aural and ophthalmic surgeon, archaeologist, ethnologist, antiquarian, biographer, statistician, naturalist, topographer, historian, folklorist, lived in this house from 1855 to 1876.”

William’s work is especially relevant in the era of Covid-19. In 1856, William collected detailed information about the many “cosmical phenomena, epizootics, famines, and pestilences” to beset Ireland, from “the pagan or pre-Christian period” onward. He presented his findings in an 1856 report based on the 1851 census, in which he was deeply involved.

William identified a pattern in the epidemics that affected Ireland over previous centuries: “Many of the plagues from which this country suffered were continuations of those great waves of pestilence, which had already passed (according to the general course of plagues) from the East, over the European continent, frequently carried along the track of human intercourse, by commercial dealings, or borne onward by hostile navies or invading armies; but others were more localised, were of domestic growth, and had their birth, and expended themselves within the circuit of this island – seldom spreading beyond its limits.”

William’s comments were historically well founded and remain relevant in today’s highly connected world, in which outbreaks spread rapidly across borders. Covid-19 clearly tracked flight paths at its outset, as the infection spread around the globe with great speed.

Of course, infections cause extraordinary pain and loss at all times, not just during pandemics. William’s own life was touched by tragedy in 1867, when his beloved nine-year-old daughter Isola died, most likely of an infection. The effect on William was sudden, immediate, and profound.

It is worth noting that William had an extraordinary personal life, resulting in many children. Born near Castlerea, Co Roscommon in March 1815, he studied medicine in Dublin and gained his medical degree from the RCSI in 1837. William married Jane Francesca (‘Speranza’) in 1851, but, by that point, already had three children: Henry, Emily, and Mary, born in 1838, 1847, and 1849, respectively. Henry later assisted William in his practice. Emily and Mary died tragically in 1871, after their dresses caught fire at a Halloween party.

Following marriage, William and Jane had three children: William, Oscar, and Isola, born in 1852, 1854, and 1857, respectively. William became a journalist and poet. Oscar was a celebrated playwright. Isola, the youngest, was a notably chirpy, happy child, whom William described as “embodied sunshine”. Isola died suddenly in the spring of 1867, owing to “a sudden effusion on the brain”, according to her mother. The most likely cause was meningitis.

William was distraught. A decade earlier, he had carefully documented the impact of infections in Ireland over several centuries, in the census reports. Now, abruptly, the loss of his own daughter underlined the heartless injustice of infective illnesses, the cruel indifference of nature to the fate of man.

Half a century later, the Spanish flu pandemic brought further sweeping losses, as another infection gripped the world, killing millions and leaving countless more bereaved. A century after that, Covid-19 emerged in China during the last week of December 2019. The pattern is as inevitable as it is shocking every time.

As was the case in 1918 and in previous outbreaks recounted by William, Covid-19 presented two immediate challenges to the world in early 2020: The first was the illness caused by the virus itself and the second was the panic that it triggered around the globe. Both continued to present enormous challenges over the following years.

In late 2023, as the pandemic passes, there is time for reflection on this extraordinary period in our history. My new book, Resilience: Lessons from Sir William Wilde on Life after Covid (Eastwood Books), is an attempt to look back on the pandemic, both its immediate impact and the psychological aftermath. It will be some years before we fully appreciate the effect of Covid-19 on our world, but it is, perhaps, time to start to figure it out.

Prof Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of ‘Resilience: Lessons from Sir William Wilde on Life after Covid’ (Eastwood Books).

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