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

Simon Winchester
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)

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Product details

  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (July 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060839783
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060839789
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.5 x 1.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 923,202 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Winchester studied Geology at Oxford University. He is the author of 'Atlantic','A Crack in the Edge of the World', 'Krakatoa', 'The Map That Changed the World', 'The Professor and the Madman', 'The Fracture Zone', 'Outposts', 'Korea', among many other titles. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Product Description


The shocking story of the single greatest contributor to the first Oxford English Dictionary in 1857 reveals that the man who contributed 10,000 definitions to the book was in fact a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane. Reprint. 100,000 first printing. Tour. NYT. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
I purchased this book while in London recently under its British title THE SURGEON OF CROWTHORNE. Apparently for American readers, the publishers felt it necessary to "tart up" the title to THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN. Regardless, Simon Winchester's story between the covers is splendidly told, without sensationalising even the most horrific details, revealed matter of factly well into the book. The story is that of Dr. Minor - an American Civil War surgeon - who went mad amid the horrors of "The Wilderness." Pursued by his nightly demons, he later wound up in grim South London where he shot dead a totally innocent man. Sent to Broadmoor - a sprawling lunatic asylum near London - he became one of the most valuable contributors to the compilation of the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester recounts - correcting but not spoiling a wonderful story - the meeting between the OED's legendary James Murray and his reclusive contributor. While ultimately Dr Minor's story is a tragic one - not the least for his hapless victim - it is also a tribute to the persistence of the human mind. Cleverly presented with appropriate OED citings, this book is not to be missed for anyone interested in words. If you'll excuse the expression, this is the "definitive" work.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Truth IS stranger . . . 15 Aug 2005
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
If Mark Twain had produced this story we would be smiling at the bizarre characterization and twisted plot. A deranged killer, comfortably incarcerated as he participates in an immense intellectual endeavour. That Winchester's tale is valid history instead invokes sadness and consternation. What bends a man's mind past the breaking point? Is a single event sufficient cause, or does it require a sequence of circumstances? If broken, must we believe that mind of no further use? Winchester's history of William Minor not only is a superb read, it shows that only extraordinary circumstances can overcome the condition of the mentally disturbed. Minor, through a fluke, restored meaning to his incarceration through his contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester has performed a noteworthy service in this uncanny work. His long-standing journalist's skills are given full rein as he canters through Minor's life in Asia, the American War Between the States and the long years in Britain's Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.
Winchester feeds us tidbits of Minor's life as the story progresses. Born in what is now Sri Lanka, Minor's early life is almost a tale of fantasy in its own right. Winchester attributes the tropical lifestyle to sowing the seeds of Minor's later madness. The seed flourished during the American Civil War, heavily fertilized with the blood of soldiers fallen during the Wilderness Campaign in Virginia. According to Winchester, the branding of an AWOL Irish soldier led to the madness bearing its fruit in the mistaken murder of a passerby in London. The mindless killing led to his incarceration in Broadmoor. While there, he became one of the principal contributors to the building of the O.E.D.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a charming and fascinating sidebar to one of the great works of scholarship in history. The Oxford English Dictionary took over 70 years to produce its first edition, and remains the definitive text on the historical development of the English language. It could not have been published without the unpaid efforts of over 800 dedicated volunteers - including Dr. William Minor, an American Army surgeon, incarcerated for almost 40 years in an English insane asylum for murdering a London brewery worker during an attack of a delusional paranoia that afflicted him his entire life.
The Professor and the Madman focuses on Minor's contribution to the work of Sir James Murray, the Scots genius who was the OED's first and greatest editor. Minor, when he wasn't being delusional, was a brilliant, assiduous reader, devoted to the English language and delighted to be part of the enormous project.
Winchester's book is a very quick read, and a delightful one. There are better books on Murray and the OED; but The Professor and the Madman gives a unique human insight into the enterprise, and the love of a language that inspired two such disparate individuals.
Anyone who loves to read and write will rightfully revere the OED and what it represents; also the enormous labors that went into its compilation. The Professor and the Madman is but a footnote to the history of that effort; but it is a lovely little footnote.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Reading 7 Feb 2001
By A Customer
Though it tends to ramble a bit at times, it is otherwise hard to fault this work. How did a scholar and a lunatic come together to lay the foundations for the greatest dictionary of the English language? Look no further for the how, why and timing. The depth of Simon Winchester's own scholarship is commendable and the writing style is, for the most part, lucid and readable. The conclusion is even rather touching - the last thing I would have expected in a book of this kind. Recommended.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant story
Really great book. Wonderful mixture of fact and fiction. Gives an insight into just what a huge undertaking the compiling of the OED was and the great people involved.
Published 20 days ago by Miss O P Dalgleish
5.0 out of 5 stars Making of the First true English Dictionary
This was a wonderful narrative of the making of the 1st Oxford dictionary. The two main characters are beautifully described and one is in amazement of the work that went into... Read more
Published 1 month ago by RR Walker
5.0 out of 5 stars Our History
I read this book some years ago now whilst staying with friends in Germany. The book is so fascinating that I have never forgotten it and, eventually wished to renew my... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Derrick Orton
5.0 out of 5 stars The Professor and the MAdman
Once I started reading this book, I couldn't put it down. An insight into a life that has been left far behind but which benefitted us today.
Published 8 months ago by Mrs. C. Phillips
5.0 out of 5 stars book addict
I loved every word and was sad to finish the book . Will read more of his works for pleasure and learning
Published 8 months ago by M. M. Mcmorran
4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting
This is a very interesting story but is quite hard going at times. Would recommend it for a serious read.
Published 13 months ago by cleverkiwi
4.0 out of 5 stars great story
Beautiful story on how the English language was compiled (by a madman!) and a very well written book. Read it before but lost the book, so I had to just get it again.
Published 18 months ago by ed
4.0 out of 5 stars Strange tale of lexicography and murder well read (in the audio...
The Professor and the Madman tells the story of Dr W.C. Minor, a Victorian murderer who became one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary, posting his... Read more
Published on 26 July 2011 by Metropolitan Critic
4.0 out of 5 stars quirky fun, a bizarre corner of the universe
This is a wonderful story of a crazy man who finds a useful occupation for himself - as a researcher for the Dictionary - from his permanent seat in an insane asylum for the... Read more
Published on 14 Jun 2011 by rob crawford
4.0 out of 5 stars Truth is stranger than fiction
An engaging, informative and amazing [truth is far stranger than fiction indeed!:] read on two people who contributed significantly to the first Oxford English Dictionary; the... Read more
Published on 14 Aug 2010 by I. Holder
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