Sir William Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s father) visits the madhouse in Cairo

Sir William Wilde in 1873.

Sir William Wilde, who was knighted for services to medicine, was one of the greatest ophthalmic and otolaryngological surgeons of the nineteenth century. He founded and ran the first dedicated eye hospital in Ireland, St Mark’s Hospital, which he funded himself. St Mark’s amalgamated with the National Eye Hospital to form the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in 1897. The following excerpt is from Wilde’s Narrative of a voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and along the shores of the Mediterranean, including a visit to Algiers, Egypt, Palestine, Tyre, Rhodes, Telmessus, Cyprus, and Greece. With observations on the present state and prospects of Egypt and Palestine, and on the climate, natural history and antiquities of the countries visited. Sir William Wilde. Dublin, 1844.

To-day we went to inspect two of the most revolting and disgusting sights at Cairo—the slave-market, and the madhouse. On reaching the door of the latter, which was originally a mosque, we were stopt by our conductor, to purchase a few cakes of coarse bread, quantities of which are tdways kept in the adjoining porch for supplying the visitors, who thus become a principal though precarious means of supporting its wretched inmates. We were led through a narrow passage, where all was still and silent as the tomb; a few steps farther, and we were introduced into a large oblong room, when a yell arose of the most unearthly kind my ears were ever assailed by—so startling, that some of our party involuntarily drew back with horror. Our sight—our smell—our hearing—were overwhelmed with a combination of disgusting realities, such as I believe no other place allotted to mankind can exhibit. Around this apartment were arranged a number of dens, about four feet square, closed in front with massive iron gratings. In each of these gloomy, filthy cells, was a human being, perfectly naked, or with the remnant of the tattered rag he may have worn on his entrance years before, fantastically tied about some part of his person; his hair and beard long and matted; his nails grown into talons ; emaciated; covered with vermin, and coated with unutterable filth; an iron collar rivetted about his neck, binding him by a massive chain either to a ring in the wall, or connecting him through a circular aperture with his fellow maniac in the adjoining cell. 

Upon our entrance, each wretched prisoner—like a ravenous animal in a menagerie, when the keeper arrives with food’—roused from his lair or his lethargy, and rushing with savage wildness to the grating, extended a withered hand for the expected morsel. The foam of frenzied agony was on every lip ; the fire of maniac fury was in every eye, and the poor madman’s yell softened into the jabber of satisfaction as each in turn snatched his morsel, and devoured it with a growl I can only liken to a tiger’s. Our pity is raised, and all our tender sympathies awakened, for the poor harmless idiot, or melancholy madman; but we must tremble before the outbreak of the violent and raging maniac. 

Even with the care and attention shown to those unfortunates in our own country, the sight of madness is one of the most humiliating and pitiable we can witness ; hut here, where no pains are taken to improve tlieir condition; no care for their wants, and no medical skill to inquire into the causes of their malady, or the possibility of their cure, it is a truly awful spectacle. I need hardly say, that recovery is rare ; indeed it would be a miracle, as the first glimmerings of returning reason would in all probability be instantly and completely destroyed on the patient finding himself immured in a dungeon, replete with such horrors. 

Few travellers who have visited this establishment but have expressed their opinion upon the state in which it is kept. Of this says Mr. Wilkinson:—“Though conducted in a disgraceful manner by its present directors, and inferior managers, we cannot but highly appreciate the humanity of Sooltan Qulason, almost the only Mooslim king or governor of Egypt, who set on foot a charitable institution for the benefit of the people. By his orders the patients, whatever might be the nature of their complaint, were regularly attended by medical men, and nurses attached to the establishment; and their minds were relieved by the introduction of a band of music, which played at intervals on a platform in the court of the interior. But the neglect and embezzlement of the directors would have reduced the whole building to a ruined condition had it not been for the benevolence of Sayd cl Mahrooque, who undertook the necessary repairs, and detected the misappropriation of its funds.” 

This institution, called Morostan, is one of considerable antiquity at Cairo, where for many years it was the only charitable establishment—it was founded in 1820, by the celebrated El Qureleem e Naser Mohammad II. It is astonishing that there are so few insane among a people so excitable and imaginative as the Mooslims—the only cause I can assign for it is their religion of fatalism—the “Allah Keriem”—God’s will be done—is a disposition that is not very favourable to the workings of insanity. 

The Europeans and medical men of Cairo should inquire into and reform this disgrace upon humanity. 

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