30 pages 1 hour read

Simon Winchester

The Professor And The Madman

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 1998

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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1998 work of nonfiction by British-American journalist Simon Winchester. Originally titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness, and the Love of Words upon its release in the United Kingdom, the book follows the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the connection that developed between James Murray, the OED’s primary editor, and William Chester Minor, a mentally ill American army surgeon who became the OED’s most prolific contributor. The thin line between mental illness and genius is an overarching theme of the book, while secondary themes include the formation of knowledge and the enormous mission of creating the dictionary. A national bestseller and listed as a New York Times Notable Book, it was adapted into a 2019 film starring Mel Gibson as Murray and Sean Penn as Minor. 

The Philological Society of London conceived the OED in 1857 as one of the biggest literary undertakings in history; their original title for it was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Although it would be more than two decades before the project would truly begin, the initial 1857 meeting presented the idea that a team of amateur, unpaid volunteers would help complete the monumental task. The dictionary’s first two editors, Herbert Coleridge and Frederick Furnivall, used volunteer contributors; after the Oxford University Press agreed to publish the project and James Augustus Henry Murray became its third editor in 1879, new appeals went out to the English-speaking and English-reading public for a new corps of volunteers by way of newspapers, magazines, and handbills. 

Murray was born in the Scottish Borders in 1837. His parents could not afford to send him to school past the age of 14, but he had already acquired a working knowledge of multiple languages by that time. Murray became a headmaster at the age of 20 and later worked in finance to support his family, but he remains a towering figure in British scholarship for his career as a largely self-taught linguist, philologist, and lexicographer. When Oxford University chose Murray to edit the OED, his mission was to update and largely replace the standard and most famous dictionary of the time, A Dictionary of the English Language, compiled by Samuel Johnson in 1755. It was a mission that would consume the rest of Murray’s life and forever link him to Dr. William Chester Minor, a man similar in appearance and intellect, but much different in every other way.

Minor was born in present day Sri Lanka in 1834 to Congregational Church missionaries who sent him back to the US at age 14. Whereas Murray came from a family of humble means, Minor’s family was one of the most elite in New England. Minor graduated from Yale Medical School with a specialization in comparative anatomy in 1863. Soon afterward, Minor joined the Union Army as a surgeon and was thrust into service during the Civil War. Not long after his experience in the war, he was institutionalized for 18 months. Upon his release, Minor traveled to Europe hoping a year spent resting, reading, and painting would cure his troubled mind. However, his paranoia and delusions got worse, until in February of 1872 he shot and killed a man in England, and was sentenced to confinement at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Crowthorne, Berkshire.

At Broadmoor, Minor lived luxuriously compared to other inmates thanks to his background and army commission. Through collecting books and academic literature, Minor stumbled across one of the Philological Society’s call for volunteers and enthusiastically jumped at the chance. Over the next 20 years, Minor became the OED’s most prolific and valuable contributor. Minor’s mental illness continued to worsen over his remaining life, including even a gruesome act of self-mutilation, but he developed an intellectual connection and friendship with Murray that eventually consisted of regular visits. In his final years, Minor was released into the care of his brother; he returned to America where he would be confined in an asylum in Washington, D.C.

At the book’s close, Winchester brings to light the notion that with modern care and medicine, Minor likely could have received effective treatment and thus his valuable contributions to the OED likely never would have taken place. 

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