Book Review: The Professor and the Madman


I realized the other day that I haven’t posted a book review lately.  I’m not sure how I’ve gotten so behind, because I have been reading, albeit not quite as much as I usually do…

Back in the summer I read The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, written by Simon Winchester.  The book is based on the true story of Dr. W. C. Minor and his unlikely friendship with Professor James Murray, the man responsible for compiling the definitions for the First Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

In the 1870s, James Murray began working as editor on the project of compiling a comprehensive dictionary of the English language.  The project had been underway since 1857, but they didn’t yet have a publisher for the dictionary.  Professor Murray breathed new life into the project, by recruiting thousands of volunteer readers to read though millions of books, looking for the first reference in writing for a word, as well as quotations that show the regular use of the word.  Murray set up a system to track all the submissions coming in, and to request references and quotations on specific words that they didn’t have enough information on.

In the late 1870s, Professor Murray began receiving quotations from Dr. W.C. Minor.  The two established a very productive working relationship, with Dr. Minor supplying a high volume of quotations.  Soon, Professor Murray was requesting quotations on specific words from Dr. Minor, and was consistently amazed when his requests were quickly answered with a plethora of references on those particular words (see how I worked plethora in there?).  Dr. Minor became one of the two biggest contributors for the project.

Dr. W.C. Minor was an American surgeon living in London.  He was born in 1834 to American missionary parents in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and went to Yale Medical School.  He served as a surgeon during the Civil War, most notably performing as a surgeon during the Wilderness Campaign in 1864.  The campaign is known for its extremely bloody fighting and high casualties, including countless men who were severely injured or burned to death when the woods caught on fire.  Who knows if this trauma contributed to how Dr. Minor’s later life turned out, but it had to have impacted him.

But Professor Murray didn’t know anything about Dr. Minor’s life – all he knew is that this voracious reader seemed to have an inexhaustible library of books and a lot of time to read them.  What Professor Murray didn’t know is that after the Wilderness Campaign and the Civil War, Dr. Minor served in New York and Florida, where he began to frequent prostitutes in the Red Light District.  His increasingly erratic behavior soon had him hospitalized in an insane asylum.

Eventually he was released and moved to England, where he continued to have paranoid hallucinations.  Eventually, his mental instability caught up with him, and he murdered a young father in the street, after believing that the man had broken into his apartment.  His sentence was to be served at Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, which is where he was when he began working on the project.

There is much about Dr. Minor that is not known, so Winchester did have to take some liberties on facts – it does not detract at all from the book, which is very well researched and written.  The book flows well from one story to the another, spending time giving the history of Dr. Minor and the history of Professor Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary project.  And I must say that I had no idea what an intriguing and all consuming project the making of the dictionary really was.

This is certainly a worthy read – I was interested the whole way through, and wanted to know if Dr. Minor was ever released.  You’ll have to read to find out, but I will tell you there is quite the twist near the end!

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