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What really killed Oscar Wilde?

Nov 30, 2015

Portrait of Oscar Wilde, taken by Napoleon Sarony circa 1882
Credit Miscellaneous Items in High Demand collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07757

115 years ago today, a great literary voice was silenced.

Oscar Wilde died November 30, 1900. He was only 46 years old.

Since then, it has been widely held that Wilde succumbed to the ravages of end-stage syphilis.

But some determined modern physicians have done some medical detective work and have developed a much different theory about what killed the great writer: an ear infection.

According to University of Michigan medical historian and PBS Newshour contributor Dr. Howard Markel, the syphilis theory originated with Wilde himself.

As an undergraduate at Oxford, Wilde sought the services of “a really well-known prostitute … named Old Jess,” Markel says. It was Wilde’s belief that he contracted syphilis that night. He was so concerned he had contracted the disease that before marrying Constance Lloyd, he underwent a medical examination, which declared him healthy.

Markel explains that at the time, the 1870s or so, they had no real understanding of what caused syphilis and no way to test for it other than through physical diagnosis.

“You could have the symptoms of syphilis and not have syphilis, there could have been other diseases. Or you could have no symptoms, because syphilis is a very sneaky disease with three main stages, and still be infected,” he says. “So that being cleared doesn’t really mean much pro or con.”

"There was no mention ever in his medical records of having any of the signs of syphilis."

Markel tells us there’s a lot of evidence stacked against Wilde’s self-diagnosis. First and foremost, neither his wife nor their two sons ever showed any symptoms of the disease.

Moreover, he says that Wilde never showed any of “the cardiovascular symptoms or the neurological symptoms” of late-stage syphilis.

Wilde was jailed for being a homosexual between 1895 and 1897. Throughout his time behind bars, Wilde was examined by physicians “at least seven times … and there was no mention ever in his medical records of having any of the signs of syphilis, whether it was neurosyphilis or any other form,” Markel says.

Those symptoms would be expected at this point in Wilde’s life, since he supposedly died of the disease only three years after his release.

Markel says Wilde did suffer from a chronic drainage from his ear, “probably a series of middle ear infections.” The condition came and went during his sentence, but came back with a vengeance in 1900.

Markel explains that the infection at that time had likely spread to Wilde’s mastoid bone, “right near the ear and right under the brain.”

“And that, particularly before antibiotics was a harbinger of bad things,” he says. “When it got to the mastoid bone you really had the risk of meningitis.”

Once the infection reaches and penetrates the meninges, the three membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord, it can cause meningoencephalitis, “and that is a terrible infection that kills you.”

According to Markel, it sounds like that’s what happened to Wilde. He describes Wilde’s last month as one filled with agony, punctuated by intense fevers, delirium, and doses of opiates and chloral hydrate, all of which fits the posthumous diagnosis.

But through it all, Markel says Wilde held on to his characteristic wit.

“Oscar Wilde was incredible. He is said to have said, ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us must go.’ Sadly, it was Oscar Wilde who went first.” 

- Ryan Grimes, Stateside