The professor and the madman A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary

Simon Winchester

Book - 1998

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New York : HarperCollins Publishers 1998.
1st ed
Physical Description
xi, 242 p. : ill
Includes bibliographical references.
Main Author
Simon Winchester (-)
Review by Booklist Reviews

Distinguished journalist Winchester tells a marvelous, true story that few readers will have heard about. His narrative is based on official government files locked away for more than a century. As everyone knows, the Oxford English Dictionary is an essential library reference tool. The 12-volume OED took more than 70 years to produce, and one of its most distinguishing features is the copious quotations from published works to illustrate every shade of word usage. By the late 1890s the huge project was nearly half done, and the editor at the time, Professor James Murray, felt the need to meet and personally thank Dr. William Minor, with whom he had been in lengthy contact and who had contributed a lion's share of the quotations. As it turned out, Dr. Minor was an American surgeon who many years before had been found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity but had been incarcerated in an English asylum ever since. The tale of their affiliation and friendship reads like a creatively conceived novel. ((Reviewed August 1998)) Copyright 2000 Booklist Reviews

Review by Library Journal Reviews

William C. Minor (1834-1920) was a Civil War surgeon whose war experience caused his personality to change. He became paranoid and was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. After three years in an asylum, he went to Europe in 1871 in pursuit of rest, getting as far as London before his paranoia caught up with him and he killed George Merritt. An English court found him not guilty on the ground of insanity, and Minor was sent to Broadmoor. Coming across a leaflet for volunteers to help compile a history of the English language, Minor offered his services, remaining vague about his background. After 17 years of correspondence, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary came to meet Minor, who had submitted 10,000 definitions to the project, and was surprised that the genius was a patient at the Broadmoor Asylum. Finally released in 1910, Minor returned to the United States. Winchester's (The River at the Center of the World, LJ 10/15/96) delightful, simply written book tells how a murderer made a huge contribution to what became a major reference source in the Western world. Highly recommended. Michael Sawyer, Northwestern Regional Lib., Elkin, NC Copyright 1998 Library Journal Reviews

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Winchester serves up suspense and pulpy prose in just the right measure in this literate story of the Oxford English Dictionary's first editor and the expatriate American murderer who contributed more than 10,000 quotations as examples. Best of all, among the entertaining tangents one learns a great dealabout the making of that grandest of all reference works. (LJ 8/98) n Copyright 1999 Library Journal Reviews

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Winchester writes enthralling and lively accounts full of fascinating characters and illuminating detail. Like Greenblatt, he has an addictive sense of wonder, which makes his books rewarding to read. As he often does, here Winchester traces the stories of two seemingly ordinary people who engage in extraordinary undertakings. James Murray, the editor of the O.E.D., sought input from contributors to create the massive 12-volume dictionary. Dr. William Chester Minor contributed thousands of entries-all while incarcerated in an asylum for murder. Winchester ably details the biographies of both men and their growing friendship, as well as their shared compulsion to create the dictionary. - "RA Crossroads", Booksmack! 8/4/11 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

The Oxford English Dictionary used 1,827,306 quotations to help define its 414,825 words. Tens of thousands of those used in the first edition came from the erudite, moneyed American Civil War veteran Dr. W.C. Minor all from a cell at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Vanity Fair contributor Winchester (River at the Center of the World) has told his story in an imaginative if somewhat superficial work of historical journalism. Sketching Minor's childhood as a missionary's son and his travails as a young field surgeon, Winchester speculates on what may have triggered the prodigious paranoia that led Minor to seek respite in England in 1871 and, once there, to kill an innocent man. Pronounced insane and confined at Broadmoor with his collection of rare books, Minor happened upon a call for OED volunteers in the early 1880s. Here on more solid ground, Winchester enthusiastically chronicles Minor's subsequent correspondence with editor Dr. J.A.H. Murray, who, as Winchester shows, understood that Minor's endless scavenging for the first or best uses of words became his saving raison d'être, and looked out for the increasingly frail man's well-being. Winchester fills out the story with a well-researched mini-history of the OED, a wonderful demonstration of the lexicography of the word "art" and a sympathetic account of Victorian attitudes toward insanity. With his cheeky way with a tale ("It is a brave and foolhardy and desperate man who will perform an autopeotomy" he writes of Minor's self-mutilation), Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Peter Matson. BOMC selection. (Sept.) Copyright 1998 Publishers Weekly Reviews

Review by School Library Journal Reviews

YA-This unusual and exciting account centers on two men involved in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary-Professor James Murray, its editor, and Dr. William Chester Minor, a true Connecticut Yankee who was one of the resource's most prolific contributors. The most surprising aspect of this long and productive partnership was that Dr. Minor, probably a schizophrenic, was incarcerated in England's most notorious insane asylum during the whole of their working relationship. He was a scholar and medical doctor whose fragile mental condition was probably exacerbated by duty as a surgeon during the American Civil War. His imprisonment was not harsh and his devotion to the cause of the dictionary and his precise and prolific contributions probably helped him hold on to some sense of reality. Winchester's descriptions of Civil War battlefields and the search for definitions of words such as aardvark or elephant are intriguing and compelling. This is a fine tale for both word lovers and history buffs. The momentum of the beginning scenes of warfare and murder are followed, not disappointingly, by descriptions of the trials and tribulations of dictionary crafting. Readers will meet some extraordinary men and an unusual woman, and find themselves well and truly ensconced in the late 19th century.-Susan H. Woodcock, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 1999 School Library Journal Reviews

Review by Publisher Summary 1

Describes how more than ten thousand definitions were submitted for the first Oxford English Dictionary from Dr. W. C. Minor, an American Civil War criminal whose life of genius and insanity make this true story both fascinating and unique. BOMC.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

A fine storyteller takes on a great story: American surgeon living in London kills a stranger, judged insane, incarcerated, connects with Jas. Murray the editor of the original OED, over decades contributes 10,000 examples of usage to the great dictionary. Good description of the creation of the OED. No index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Review by Publisher Summary 3

Now a major motion picture