William Ernest Henley was never the healthiest of people physically. When he was twelve years old, he was diagnosed with what was probably tubercular arthritis, a disease which doctors in Gloucester did not fully understand. According to Jerome Hamilton Buckley, "his body had grown all out of proportion to his withered limbs. An insidious enemy gnawed at his hands and feet"(36). Amputation was the normal Victorian "cure" for this problem. Unfortunately, the result was almost always gangrene and death.
At age eighteen, Henley passed the local Oxford examination as a senior candidate. This achievement in 1867 was undercut, however, by his poor health. By the following spring he had allowed incompetent surgeons to persuade him to amputate his left foot, an operation that took place in a small hospital in Smithfield. This experience left Henley disillusioned with life in general. In 1873, he refused to accept the notion of a second amputation by the same incompetent surgeons. Instead, Henley decided to make a trip to Edinburgh to seek out more informed information about his condition.
It was at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary that Henley found himself under the care of Joseph Lister, a proponent of an as yet unproven form of antiseptic treatment. Henley spent twenty months under the care of Lister, recording towards the end of his stay his reactions to his circumstances. These verses were to appear in his In Hospital collection of poetry. he also befriended a fellow patient's sister, Anne Boyle, who was soon to become his wife. In February of 1875, Robert Louis Stevenson came to visit Henley in the hospital, and continued to do so in the months that followed. This seemed to have a profound impact upon Henley's recovery, as the tubercular germ that plagued him seemed to lie dormant. In April, he left the infirmary, and was moved to Portobello on the Firth of Forth. His release from the hospital inspired his own positive assertion and faith in himself, and also had an impact on his philosophical and theological views.
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