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Friday, 24 November, 2000, 00:24 GMT
Oscar Wilde 'died from ear infection'
Actor Stephen Fry with statue of Oscar Wilde
Stephen Fry played the poet in the biographical film
Oscar Wilde died as the result of a severe ear infection and not from syphilis, doctors believe.

In a review of the writer's medical history, coinciding with the centenary of his death, doctors from Cape Town say that a diagnosis of syphilis was "most unlikely".

Wilde's grandson, Merlin Holland, has warmly welcomed the new publicity for the long-held belief that syphilis was not the cause of his death.

"Around 25% of Victorian men had syphilis and he may have had it too - we'll never know - but one thing that's almost certain is that he didn't die of it," Mr Holland told BBC News Online.

Research by the South African doctors indicates that Wildewas examined by at least seven doctors, including two psychiatrists while he was in Reading Jail between 1895 and 1897 and none had diagnosed syphilis.

Rather, they conclude that "Oscar Wilde died of meningoencephalitis secondary to chronic right middle-ear disease".

Wilde was plagued by ear problems for much of his adult life, doctors from the University of Cape Town Medical School report in The Lancet.

Oscar Wilde died of meningoencephalitis secondary to chronic right middle-ear disease

Dr Ashley Robins, University of Cape Town

Before he was sent to prison, he consulted a prominent London ear surgeon, Sir William Dalby, because of problems with deafness and a discharge from his right ear.

While in Reading Jail, he petitioned the Home Secretary, complaining of deafness due to an abscess having perforated the ear drum.

No help in prison

But the prison medical officer said there was nothing he could do to help, in what the authors claim was "a wholly unsatisfactory, almost contemptuous reponse to Wilde's grievances".

"He did not institute the basic hygiene measures that might have brought some relief to his patient's discomfort and anguish," they said.

Dr Ashley Robins and Dr Sean Sellars dismiss the idea that Wilde died as a result of syphilis, contracted in his twenties, which was put forward by his biographer, Richard Ellman.

"There is no evidence that Wilde ever harboured the infection; on the contrary, his unimpaired intellectual prowess up until the end makes a diagnosis of tertiary neurosyphilis most unlikely," they declare.

No reference to syphilis was ever made in any of his medical documents, even though the disease was common at the time.

Speaking from Paris, Merlin Holland said that he was delighted Dr Robins had "added his voice to those who've been saying for years that the syphilis theory is absurd".

Experts agree

Sally Brown, curator of a major exhibition of Wilde's life at the British Library until February, said she was "not convinced at all that he died from syphilis".

The exhibition includes a medical report from two doctors on 27 November 1900, three days before his death at the age of 46 - which diagnoses encephalitic meningitis.

No one has ever made any sort of case to indicate that he suffered from syphilis

Sally Brown, Wilde exhibition curator
The doctors said that "further surgical intervention seems impossible" following surgery conducted by one of them, Dr Paul Cleiss, several weeks earlier in his Paris hotel room.

According to Ms Brown, Wilde had suffered terrible ear pain and had been weakened by his time in prison, where he had also had a fall on his bad ear while in chapel.

"He died from a severe ear infection - he was in terrible physical shape after being in prison and was more likely to succumb to an infection," she told BBC News Online.

"No one has ever made any sort of case to indicate that he suffered from syphilis."

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See also:

06 Aug 00 | Entertainment
Unfinished Wilde play discovered
30 Nov 98 | UK
London's Wilde tribute
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