book review

“The Professor and the Madman” by Simon Winchester

Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman 
HarperCollins, 1998
Hardcover, 242 pages
ISBN 0-06-017596-6


Compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), begun in 1857, required more than 70 years and the help of hundreds of volunteers who submitted examples of the usage of individual words. The editor of the project was Professor James Murray, a scholarly former schoolmaster and bank clerk. For 20 years Murray maintained a close correspondence with his most prolific volunteer, Dr. William Chester Minor. Murray frequently suggested that the two men should meet, but Dr. Minor always evaded the issue. Finally, Murray traveled to the address Minor used on his submission envelopes.

. . . the carriage turned up a long drive lined with tall poplars, drawing up eventually outside a huge and rather forbidding red-brick mansion. A solemn servant showed the lexicographer upstairs, and into a book-lined study, where behind an immense mahogany desk stood a man of undoubted importance. Dr. Murray bowed gravely, and launched into the brief speech of greeting that he had so long rehearsed:

“A very good afternoon to you, sir. I am Dr. James Murray of the London Philological Society, and Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. It is indeed an honour and a pleasure to at long last make your acquaintance—for you must be, kind sir, my most assiduous helpmeet, Dr. W.C. Minor?”

There was a brief pause, a momentary air of mutual embarrassment. A clock ticked loudly. There were muffled footsteps in the hall. A distant clank of keys. And then the man behind the desk cleared his throat, and he spoke:

“I regret, kind sir, that I am not. It is not at all as you suppose. I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years. He is our longest-staying resident.” 

(pp. x-xi)

In The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester tells two stories: the story of the creation of the OED and the story of how Dr. William Minor, a surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, ended up in England’s harshest asylum for the criminally insane. Both stories will intrigue anyone interested in history, lexicography, biography, or medicine (particularly psychiatry).

Unfortunately, neither story is very long. That may be why Winchester finds it necessary to describe Murray’s attempt to meet Dr. Minor, as quoted above, three times. More annoying than the repetition, though, is Winchester’s assertion that the story, which he attributes to “popular myth,” is probably apocryphal. Why spend so much time on something that most likely never happened?

Because it’s a good story (although once would have been enough). And anyone who likes a good story will enjoy The Professor and the Madman.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

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