The Professor and the Madman

by Simon Winchester
Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1662

In The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester tells the story of Dr. William C. Minor, a retired American army surgeon found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity in England during the nineteenth century. Minor was sent to an asylum where he pursued his love of reading. He soon learned of a call for volunteers to contribute to the making of what would later become the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor would prove to be among the first rank of all the volunteers who contributed to the making of the great dictionary. Winchester’s history is often tangential, touching on not only the history of the Oxford English Dictionary but also the history of dictionaries and insanity while explaining how Minor came to make such extraordinary contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary from the confines of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Simon Winchester has dedicated his book to George Merrett, whose death led to the story that he tells in The Professor and the Madman. On February 17, 1872, George Merrett was murdered while on his way to work during the early morning hours. His murderer was Dr. William C. Minor, a surgeon-captain of the U.S. Army. Minor was found, arrested, and brought to trial. He was found “legally innocent of murder” by reason of insanity. It was explained at trial that Minor felt that poor men, often of Irish descent, were breaking into his room every night to slip a “metallic biscuit” coated with poison into his mouth. He convinced the jury of his insanity and was consequently sent to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Winchester was allowed to read his file, number 742, to produce his account.

The title The Professor and the Madman alludes to two protagonists. Minor is the primary subject of Winchester’s study, and James Augustus Henry Murray has been credited with the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Before he became editor of the great dictionary, Murray spent his childhood and early adult life learning a wide variety of subjects. Although he calculated astronomical movements during his childhood, his true passion was philology, or the study of languages, and Murray went on to learn an impressive number of languages during his early adulthood. However, although Murray’s passion for philology led to his work as editor in that field (not to mention attempts to teach cattle to respond to Latin commands) he is best remembered as the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Winchester attempts to help his audience realize how impressive the Oxford English Dictionary’s creation is by providing a brief history of dictionaries. Although dictionaries are largely taken for granted in the twenty-first century, they are actually a recent creation; no English dictionary was available to William Shakespeare. By 1225, there was a Latin collection of words, and by the sixteenth century, A Shorte Dictionarie for Yonge Beginners was put out, though it arranged words by subject rather than alphabetical order. Other early dictionaries focused on difficult words or attempted to standardize the English language.

By the eighteenth century, many of England’s most acclaimed writers, including Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift, had begun to call for a more comprehensive English dictionary that, Winchester explains, would give the language “greater prestige both at home and abroad.” Perhaps more importantly, they felt that the language had achieved a sort of perfection that would only be degraded if the meanings of words were not stabilized. If the British were busy finding ways to calculate longitude for navigation, they should also have a stable language to spread during their travels.

The most famous dictionary of the eighteenth century was Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson’s approach was to find every word of the English language that was recorded in writing and to build the dictionary based on what had already been published in English. Johnson decided to limit the breadth of his required reading and set his assistants to work reading as far back as the works of Sir Philip Sidney—roughly the sixteenth century. The result was a two-volume dictionary that was an immediate success. It went on to earn Johnson fame during his lifetime. Winchester notes that it was “an unrivaled repository of the English language for the next century.”

However, in 1857, Richard Cenevix Trench made a call for a new dictionary to be made. In contrast to previous dictionaries, this one would recognize that dictionaries are to be “an inventory of language” rather than a guide used to control language. He also called for each word to have its history recorded. Regardless of whether a word is used currently, if it was used in previous centuries, then it should be recorded. Lexicographers could find the “birth” of a word in its first usage in literature. The first response to Trench’s call was A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which called for editors to begin reading English literature in search for sentences that concisely defined words. Although this project stagnated, it was eventually renewed and completed. In 1879, James Murray was hired to edit The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. One of Murray’s first actions was to send out a new appeal for volunteers to contribute definitions. This call reached Minor, who was now an inmate at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Crowthorne, Berkshire.

Winchester does his best to reconstruct the story of Minor’s insanity. Minor was raised in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). Winchester speculates that watching naked girls running along the shore during his early adolescence may have altered his mind. During his time in the asylum, Minor would regularly complain that he had been taken away during the night to perform illicit acts with naked girls. He claimed that his abductors had “made a pimp” of him. Before he could do anything of the sort in Ceylon, Minor’s parents sent him away.

In his adulthood, Minor graduated from Yale Medical School. He went on to become a surgeon for the Union Army in the American Civil War, and he witnessed the Battle of the Wilderness, which Winchester emphasizes was fought by infantrymen rather than by artillery or cavalry and was, therefore, brutally violent and bloody. After the battle, Minor was called upon to execute a punishment upon a deserter. During the Civil War, the punishment for desertion evolved from hanging to branding. Minor was ordered to brand an Irish deserter’s face with a “D.” When Minor later shot George Merrett, he was convinced that Irishmen were breaking into his room each night attempting to poison him. Winchester speculates how Minor’s paranoia would be diagnosed and treated today, considering schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Regardless of why or how it happened, William Chester Morris’s paranoia did not abate during his time in the Braodmoor Asylum.

However, although Minor complained steadily of nocturnal attacks and kidnappings during his time at Broadmoor, few would have thought him insane during the day. Minor was awarded an army pension, he hired another inmate as a servant, he wore the wardrobe of a gentleman, and he built an impressive library of rare books in his two rooms. When Murray’s call for volunteers went out, Minor had been an inmate for eight years at Broadmoor Asylum. Minor was instantly compelled to volunteer, and he went on to devise a unique system that would allow him to be of particular service in the creation of the new dictionary.

Winchester explains that most volunteers were called upon to read rare works to find uniquely pithy passages that defined the early use of common words. Many volunteers mistook this work as a call for rare words. Unfortunately, Murray found that he had access to many unusual words, but few examples of commonly used words. However, Minor understood the project thoroughly and began studying rare travelogues from the eighteenth century and earlier for useful sentences. He created a meticulous record of words for years before writing to ask the editors whether there were any words that they were struggling with. It turned out that they were stuck on art, a word that Minor was able to help with. In this way, Minor created a special role for his contributions to the great dictionary.

After nearly two decades of correspondence, Minor had contributed over 10,000 words to the dictionary, and Murray was surprised to realize that he and Minor had never met although Minor was only an hour’s travel away. Murray made plans to visit Minor and discovered that his long-time volunteer was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. In spite of Murray’s surprise, the two men became acquainted, and Murray continued to regularly visit Minor at the asylum.

Winchester suggests that contributing to the Oxford English Dictionary, as it would eventually be called, was a sort of treatment for the retired surgeon. However, eventually, his condition deteriorated and his contributions became less frequent. When Dr. Brayn took over the asylum, conditions became stricter, and Minor became agitated. Later, convinced that he was committing a crime by masturbating, Minor would amputate his penis with a penknife. In the early 20th century, Minor was allowed to leave the asylum and was entered into an American hospital. During his old age, he was released to his family’s care. Winchester notes that Minor is buried near a slum today, but he was a largely unrecognized contributor to a great dictionary.

Murray’s life ended more happily, but he was unfortunately unable to see the Oxford English Dictionary completed before his death. All told, the dictionary took seventy years to complete and is held within twelve “tombstone sized volumes.” It has since been released on CD-ROM and online. Murray is still remembered for his contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is, in turn, still remembered as the greatest dictionary ever made.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access