Madman, Murderer and Words.

By now you will have recognised realised that I am besotted by words in the English language.  I like the way they look, the way they sound and their meanings.  I can spend whole days following the etymology of words.

Imagine my delight then some years ago to be presented with a copy of “The Professor and the Madman” the story of the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary and the two men who were so intimately involved in it.

Book cover - Professor and madman

The Professor and the Madman masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the “Oxford English Dictionary”–and literary history.” From the book description on Amazon.

Have you discovered this book yet?  It was written and researched by Simon Winchester and  published in 1999.

We are told that compiling the OED  was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken.   As definitions and quotations were collected, Professor James Murray leading the overseeing committee discovered that Dr W C Minor had submitted more than 10,000 words and their quotations.  The committee insisted honoring him at which time the truth came to light.

That truth – Dr Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was  an inmate at Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane.

Dr Minor had served in the Union army as an  assistant surgeon and held the rank of lieutenant. He spent about six months attending to civil war casualties at hospitals in New England before being sent to the front line in May 1864. It appears that following time in the battlefield his mental illness resurfaced.  Because of this he had to leave the army and was sent by his family to convalesce in London.  He settled in a particularly poor part of London (Lambeth) where he supported himself by painting watercolours and playing the flute.  But his mental illness was never under control and while living there he shot and killed a brewery worker who was on his way to work, thinking that the worker was out to seek revenge for an earlier incident while Minor was in the US Army.

Minor gave himself up to the police and was sentenced to be confined in the newly opened Broadmoor Asylum ‘Until Her Majesty’s Pleasure Be Known’

While detained in Broadmoor where he had two cells, a manservant, a large collection of books, and, incredibly, regular visits from Eliza Merrett, the widow of the man he had murdered, Minor heard of the   ‘Appeal for volunteer readers’ sent out by James Murray, in which Murray asked interested members of the reading public to scour published literature for quotations to illustrate the use of English words. Minor, described by the Broadmoor administrators as particularly learned set to work assembling lists of quotations and by the mid-1880s was sending hundreds, and later thousands, of quotations on slips of paper  to Murray and his team at the “famous scriptorium at 79 Banbury Road, Oxford.”

The letters were  signed ‘W. C. Minor, Crowthorne, Berkshire’, and until he called upon Minor,  Murray had no idea that his most assiduous correspondent was an American murderer and an inmate at one of Britain’s most secure and infamous lunatic asylums.

The two men became firm friends united by the complexity of the English language.  Despite this friendship and the benefits of his involvement in the dictionary Minor’s illness became more acute and in 1902, he amputated his own penis in the belief it might curb his troublesome sexual appetite. Following this and prompted by Murray, the  Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, allowed Minor’s release and deportation in 1910.

Minor was farewelled by Murray and his wife and sailed back to New York where on arrival there, he was immediately committed to  St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC. He deteriorated steadily, was moved to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane in Hartford, Connecticut and in 1920 died of a respiratory infection

We know very little of his life after returning to the United States but his legacy as a volunteer reader can be found among the pages of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary. Professor James Murray said of him at the time that “so enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions … that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone” (The Professor and the madman p160).

Associated posts

35 responses to “Madman, Murderer and Words.

  1. Another very interesting story, thanks. 🙂


  2. What is also amazing is that how organized efforts like this were in prior centuries esp in recording data and presenting it using 3×5 cards or something without computers.


    • Hi Carl. Dr Minor apparently wrote on ‘slips of paper’. Imagine the work involved and no Wikipedia to help. I remember the 3×5 cards and the boxes to hold them. How much easier life has become with the computer. Thanks for the comment, and I hope you have recovered from your accident on Friday.


  3. Fascinating – thanks for sharing this.


  4. Absolutely fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing.


  5. This sounds so interesting – you’ve kindled a desire in me to read the book. Thanks!


    • I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


      • This reminds me, at lunch yesterday w/ my kids and hubby we were talking about the fact that his family is some degree of cousins with Noah Webster of Merriam-Webster fame. My 22-year-old said she always trots that out as justification for her position when confronted with an English grammar/usage debate.

        We all enjoyed a self-satisfied smirk until she turned to me and said, “But Mom, you’re just related by marriage so you can’t use that.”


  6. Imagine if he was alive today with all the medical technology and knowledge we know now of mental illness! He was brilliant in his own time I believe. What he could have done in this day and age.


  7. So interesting! Thanks. An early sufferer of PTSD, I’d wager.


  8. What fascinating things I learn here!


    • Thanks Linda. My original copy of the book was called The Surgeon of Crowthorne but was renamed the Professor and the Madman when printed in the US and as I bought the replacement copy from Amazon this is the title of the book I now have. 🙂


  9. Oh Judith I had never heard that story or about the book…I will seek it out!!


  10. That is such a sad story, really. Very interesting, I’m glad you researched and shared it with us.


    • Wouldn’t it be terrible to be locked up in Broadmoor – a prison on the moors for the criminally insane. I guess there was very little anybody could do for these poor souls at that time.


  11. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m a “wordie” too. I just checked and it’s available at Amazon. I shall order a copy.


    • My original copy was called The Surgeon of Crowthorne but it was renamed for the US market and so the copy I have now has this new titled. Enjoy the read, I know I did.


  12. I’ve heard of this book, Judith, but never read it. Your post has reminded me of it and renewed my interest. Thanks.


  13. I was telling my husband about this book, Judith, and he looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. “don’t you remember me telling you about this book awhile ago? We own it.” Oh, well…


  14. I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!


  15. Pingback: Book Review: The Professor and the Madman | A Daily Life

  16. Thanks for sharing your review! I posted it today at:



  17. I was so glad you suggested it. Plus I love seeing posts being reblogged and passed along to readers who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.


  18. Pingback: Words, Words and More Words | I choose how I will spend the rest of my life

  19. Pingback: A Day in the Life of… | I choose how I will spend the rest of my life

Let's talk

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.