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Throughout 2013 we are running a series of articles examining the lives of people, both famous and infamous, who have made a historical contribution to surgery. This month, paediatric ENT surgeon Raymond Clarke from Liverpool introduces us to Sir William Wilde, whose pioneering work did much to reduce public prejudice surrounding deafness, but whose personal life was almost as dramatic as that of his famous son, Oscar Wilde.

Sir William Wilde (1815-1876) excelled as a pioneering eye and ear surgeon, archaeologist, travel writer and Irish folklorist. His 1853 treatise,Diseases of the Ear, established surgery of the ear as a respectable scientific pursuit and became the definitive manual of otology on both sides of the Atlantic during the latter part of the 19th century. At a time when deafness was viewed with suspicion and hostility, the ‘deaf and dumb’ were largely confined to asylums, and the ear was regarded as inaccessible to surgeons, Wilde was one of handful of noble and innovative practitioners of this brave new discipline, rescuing it from the hands of quacks and charlatans. However, his colourful private and public lives not only foreshadowed but also bore eerie similarities to those of his notorious son Oscar.

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