Review: The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the MadmanSimon Winchester. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999, 2005.

Summary: The story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary; James Murray, the editor who gave critical leadership to the project; and Dr. W. C. Minor, the paranoid schizophrenic, whose contribution was vital to the project.

W. C. Minor was the scion of a wealthy family. He showed promise as a medical surgeon, served in Union hospitals until he had an experience during the Battle of the Wilderness that changed his life. Forced to brand an Irish deserter, he was never after the same and eventually placed on a pension. He went to London, seeking rest, and to restore his mind but his fears came with him. He lived in a poorer section, in Lambeth and one night chased down a brewery worker, shot and killed him. Found innocent by reason of insanity, he was confined to Broadmoor, an estate-like “lunatic asylum” that provided humane care, though not treatment. Because of his resources, he acquired two rooms in one of the nicer parts of the facility, acquired an extensive library that filled one room while he painted in the other. But he lacked any real purpose, and his demons pursued him.

In 1857, delegates of the Philological Society decided to move forward with a dictionary of the English language. Samuel Johnson’s effort of the last century was the only real resource at the time. Two members, Herbert Coleridge and Frederick Furnivall led the effort but it lagged for over twenty years until James Murray was finally put in charge. Murray published a kind of want ad seeking dictionary volunteers who would scour literature for words and quotations using those words to contribute to his dictionary. One of the ads found its way into a book acquired by Dr. Minor. It would give his life a purpose for another couple decades and lead to a most unusual relationship between the two men. Minor, often at request, would scour his books and come up with quotations for words whose definitions Murray and his team were preparing for publication. He sent thousands upon thousands of quotations, meticulously recorded–a lexicographers dream. Eventually Murray would go to meet Minor, and they would walk the grounds of Broadmoor, looking as if they were two “Father Christmases” in their white beards, talking words, keeping for a time, the fears and demons at bay.

Simon Winchester narrates the story of the seventy year process involved in the publication of the full Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as well as the unusual life of one of its most significant contributors. In an understated way, this work also serves as a tribute to Murray, whose leadership brought the work near to completion by the time of his death. One of the most telling things is the dignity with which he treats Minor throughout their relationship. In the case of Minor, not unlike John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, the line between genius and madness is a tenuous one. Both Minor and Nash struggled with forms of schizophrenia before any of the modern drug therapies were developed to deal with this illness. Winchester speculates on whether the work on the dictionary served as a kind of therapy, and whether Minor would have made such a signal contribution otherwise.

Winchester gives us a fascinating story, well-told, of a most unlikely friendship, and scholarly partnership. Murray wrote at one point of Minor:

“So enormous have been Dr. Minor’s contributions during the past 17 or 18 years, that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotes alone.”

This story also reminds us that the OED is the work of thousands of volunteers as well as a team of lexicographers, led for many years by James Murray. It continues to be the dictionary without peer when it comes to the English language. Little did I know that a madman played such an important role.

 

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