The Professor and the Madman
By Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester (English author, National Book Award Winner for Non Fiction)
Simon Winchester’s book begins with a “bang”. It comes from a hand gun brandished by Dr. William Chester Minor (1834 to 1920)
Minor arbitrarily murders George Merrett on a London suburban street in 1871.
Minor is an American civil war surgeon who lived through the “battle of the Wilderness”. An innocent and unsuspecting Englishman is shot dead by Minor in a small town near London.
Surprisingly, this random murder is the beginning of a brief history of the Oxford Dictionary. Dr. Minor is “…the Madman”. “The Professor…” is James Murray, a lexicographer, principally responsible for the completion and final editing of the first Oxford English Dictionary.
Winchester reveals how an intelligent young physician’s life evolves from an American civil war surgeon to murderer to skilled etymologist (an expert in word origins). He describes how Minor’s criminal madness isolates him.
After trial for murder, and conviction, Minor is sent to an English insane asylum to serve his sentence. Minor, a Yale graduate, uses his incarceration (when not debilitated by paranoid delusions) to read books.
Broadmoor Hospital (High-security psychiatric hospital)
After the book’s murderous opening, Winchester recounts the early history of dictionaries; dating back to the 17th century.
Winchester touches on the first Oxford dictionary (before it became the OED) created by Samuel Johnson in 1755. In 1857, over 100 years after Johnson’s original English dictionary, a speech is given at the London Library suggesting it needs to be amended.
Richard Trench (1807-1886, Irish Poet, Anglican archbishop) suggests a new, more comprehensive, Oxford English Dictionary (to become known as the OED). This monumental undertaking is estimated to take two years in Trench’s opinion. In fact, it takes over sixty.
The editor who completes the dictionary is James Murray. Murray becomes a lynch pin for the revised reputation of William Chester Minor. Minor’s resurrection is tied to his voracious reading habit and his contribution to the OED.
James Murray (1837-1915, Scottish lexicographer and philogist.)
Methodology for the OED’s reification relies on past dictionaries and volunteers. Volunteers are recruited via flyers and letters asking for readers to glean words and quotes from books written in particular periods of time; for example, books written from 1200 to 1300.
W.C. Minor receives one of these flyers at the asylum. He responds and becomes an important source of information for the Dictionary.
Minor establishes correspondence with editors of the compendium and begins delivering some of the detail needed to complete the book for publication. It gives his life a focus that partially mitigates his madness.
Murray takes the helm 22 years after former editors earlier work to update Samuel Johnson’s master work. Five years after Murray’s appointment, the first publication is made. It covers A through Ant in 352 pages.
Perhaps the most productive editor of the dictionary is Professor James Murray.
OED first edition by James Murray.
Winchester goes on to describe the odd first meeting between Minor and Murray. Murray has no idea that Minor is in an insane asylum. Minor is housed 60 miles from Murray’s editing facility, the Scriptorium. Several versions of the meeting are reported.
Minor is eventually repatriated to the United States from his asylum incarceration in England (interestingly because of Winston Churchill’s intervention) but he dies ignominiously.
Ironically, according to Winchester, the source of W.C. Minor’s story are George Merrett’s descendants (the murder victim’s family).
Dr. William Chester Minor
Insanity is not a crime. It is also not necessarily the end of one’s contribution to society.
The Oxford English Dictionary was finally completed in 1927, nearly 70 years after its conception.