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 being 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.
And now that there is a movie starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, I just had to reread it before seeing the film.
“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.
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 on honouring 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, Professor 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 has been Dr Minor’s contributions … that we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone” (The Professor and the Madman p160).