As someone who likes both words and biographies when I saw the title The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary I knew that it was something that I had to pick up. I don’t regret that choice. Delivered in a somewhat high class British tone, something that’s not very prevalent here in the States and something that matches the setting of our story, Simon Winchester does a great job telling us the story of the troubled Dr. W. C. Minor and how he came to be involved in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. It took me weeks to chip away at this novel on my lunch breaks, but I walked away from the experience with a reminder that life is often stranger that fiction.
After serving as a field medic in the the American civil war on the Union side, Dr. W. C. Minor’s mental woe’s became increasingly apparent to the point that he was discharged from the military receiving something akind to disability from that point until the day that he died (giving him an important stream of income for what was to come). Although the doctors of the time knew that Dr. Minor had some sort of mental illness, what modern doctors would have diagnosed as schizophrenia, they did not know how to properly treat Dr. Minor or what was to be done with him for the long haul. After voluntarily spending some time at a mental hospital in America, it was believed that if Dr. Minor did something relaxing, such as painting and touring Europe, then perhaps his condition would go away. So after packing an easel, some brushes, and his military issued pistol that is precisely what Dr. Minor did; however, while on tour in Europe the troubled doctor shot a man whom he believed had been spying on him. Minor was then sentenced to a life of incarceration in the Broadmoor insane asylum. This mundane environment lead to Minor’s search for productive work, for he desperately wanted to feel apart of society again, and thus his involvement in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began.
If the tale of W. C. Minor sounds interesting to you, then you should definiely pick this title up. The Professor and the Madman has seen various releases in the form of a book (gaining Simon Winchester much acclaim), two audiobooks (one abridged and one unabridged), and a movie featuring Mel Gibson (receiving only a luke warm response from the general public [it does change the story quite a bit in my opinion]). Besides Dr. Minor there where several other equally as interesting figures involved in the making of the OED including James Murray whom the book provides a length biography on as well. As for me, now that I’ve read one story about the making of a great dictionary, I may look into the story of another, the Webster’s English Dictionary to be precise, which the author indicted was another interesting story. And for the rest of y’all, happy hunting.
— Author: TBryantS
In Case That Was Not Enough…
Simon Winchester’s Website