Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2014

by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins 1998)

This book is a good follow-up to The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, which had its own chapter on the making of the greatest dictionary in the world. (Another good one is Reading the OED, by Ammon Shea.)  James Murray, the second editor of the OED, is the professor; the madman is Dr. William C. Minor, an American doctor suffering from what was most likely paranoid schizophrenia, incarcerated in the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for the murder of George Merrett, an English workingman on his way to work the night shift at the Red Lion Brewery in London. Minor, an intelligent and well-educated man, leaped at the opportunity to contribute to the work on the OED. His contribution was to read, collecting words and relevant quotations for the dictionary which he would then mail to Murray at Oxford. His work was remarkable in its meticulousness, and eventually, he and Murray became friends. Minor outlived Murray by several years, and neither of them lived to see the completion of the first edition of the dictionary that they had labored so long and hard to produce.

The tragedies of Minor’s mental illness and of Merrett’s senseless death leaving a pregnant wife and six young children make this a sad book indeed. Still, it is an example of how mental illness is not the whole person, but only one aspect of that person; given the opportunity, a “madman” can still make a useful contribution to society (and Minor, in his remorse, also provided contributed to the support of Merrett’s widow and children). This is something we are still learning today–that mental illness is an illness like any other.  I was fairly surprised at the enlightened attitude not only of James Murray but also of several of the Broadmoor “governors”, who allowed the usually gentle but terribly tormented Minor quite a lot of freedom within the confines of the asylum.

The book is good both as the story of the two men and the development of their unlikely friendship and as the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Thanks to Rachel C. for suggesting it!

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