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The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary [Paperback]

Simon Winchester
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Jun 1999
The making of the Oxford English Dictionary was a monumental 50 year task requiring thousands of volunteers. One of the keenest volunteers was a W C Minor who astonished everyone by refusing to come to Oxford to receive his congratulations. In the end, James Murray, the OED's editor, went to Crowthorne in Berkshire to meet him. What he found was incredible - Minor was a millionaire American civil war surgeon turned lunatic, imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum for murder and yet who dedicated his entire cell-bound life to work on the English language.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (3 Jun 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140271287
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140271287
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 11 x 18 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 51,893 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

Amazon Review

Subtitled "A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words," this is a remarkable account of the life of W.C. Minor. Not a famous name, but a quite extraordinary man. Minor was an American Army surgeon and millionaire who contributed enormously by post to the first, epic edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) while hidden away in obscurity in Berkshire, England. As the author points out, the OED is the most important work of reference ever created, and, given the globalisation of the English language, is likely to remain so for centuries. But when in 1896 Sir James Murray, the formidable editor of the OED, at last travelled down to Berkshire to find this elusive lexicographer and thank him for all his work, he found Minor in Broadmoor: patient Number 742.

Minor was educated, gentlemanly, industrious, and a psychopathic killer, who had gunned down a man at random in the London streets because he believed his victim was an Irish terrorist after his blood.

Simon Winchester won't win any prizes for the elegance of his prose style, but he has dug up a strange and extraordinary life story and turned it into a compelling piece of historical detective work. He never really penetrates into the central mystery of Minor's madness, because no one can. The mystery remains, inviolable, and makes his tale all the more darkly compelling. --Christopher Hart

About the Author

Simon Winchester has had an award-winning 20 year career as Guardian correspondent. He lives in New York and is the Asia-Pacific Editor for Conde Nast Traveler and contributes to a number of American magazines, as well as the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and the BBC. He has written numerous books. THE RIVER AT THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD (Viking 1997/Penguin 1998) has been shortlisted for the 1998 Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Award.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stranger than Fiction 8 Oct 2004
Format:Paperback
This book recounts a tale so improbable that as fiction it would have been hard to believe. Two Victorian lives become entwined. On the one hand, a great scholar who has bettered himself through learning, a man of towering reputation and influence; on the other, a millionaire madman whose delusional grip on reality has failed him and left him isolated in a lunatic asylum, a continent away from his family, with only his books for company.
Somehow their paths collide, and for years they work at a distance to create together the greatest reference book in the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary.
Eventually they meet, and their rapport blossoms into true friendship. A strange story unfolds, of gothic madness, violence, improbable love and eventual disintegration.
At times uplifting, at others rather muted, this book can at times be unevenly paced; but overall it is a very rewarding read.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This is a well-told tale that leads the audience through some of the politics involved in the production of the Oxford English Dictionary. The author has fictionalised the account at times through necessity, but made it clear that this is what he has done, in a story that combines murder most foul with the troubled life of the murdered.
The dictionary (“OED”) was a product of the Victorian ‘we can do anything’ optimism, and was undoubtedly a hugely ambitious project. The task would probably have been finished without the help of Dr William Chester Minor, a resident of a large country house in Berkshire (and better known as Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane). However, the work was enormously advanced by the surgeon / murderer. Minor grasped the vast amount of work involved, and had the tiem and source material to contribute freely. He also had a wonderful method in his searching out quotations for the normal and abnormal use of words. His method enabled the editorial team, led by Dr James Murray, to request help from Minor and know thay would receive an enlightening and quality answer.
Minor died in 1920, back in his native America, more that 7 years before the completion of the OED. In the completed work there are 414835 words defined, and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Minor alone had contributed scores of thousands.
The English speaking world is indebted to the contributions of William Minor. We are also grateful to Simon Winchester for telling the tale with clarity and humour. Winchester also debunks the mythical account of the first meeting between Dr Murray and Minor. I got the feeling that the author liked the fabled account, even though he knew it not to be true (and clearly states that fact).
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By I. Curry VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The subject of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary might seem to some as interesting as plowing through the subject text itself. Some might be more intrigued, the bibliophile, amateur lexicographer or philologist taking interest in the heritage of one of the greatest works in the English language. But those who are interested in biography or narrative history may discern a more exciting prospect. This is the story of two men, both central and devoted to the OED, and sharing as many similarities as they shared stark differences.

Some reviewers have commented that the story set out in this book would be dismissed as fantasy if it masqueraded as fiction. That it is a true story makes it quite remarkable. This is a tale from Victorian England in a world of European competition, supreme British confidence and `great' men. Just as the Victorians transformed and tamed their physical surroundings with majestic bridges, overbearing edifices and engineering feats they sought to do the same in the realm of learning. The Oxford English Dictionary was one of the high points of this academic adventure, deserving of greater recognition and understanding.

Winchester's book is an entertaining narrative of the dictionary's difficult gestation, birth and development. It is largely told through two protagonists (having pondered within the debate between the OED and Fowler's English Grammar on whether it was even possible to have plural protagonists) - the OED's long serving and dedicated editor, James Murray, and one of his keenest volunteers, William Minor.

And it is in Minor's story that the book finds its central intrigue. The surgeon of Crowthorne was indeed a surgeon, graduating from Yale and serving as a doctor in the US army of the civil war.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the largest and most encompassing dictionaries in the world. It took almost 70 years to complete and during those years thousands of volunteers scrutinized newspapers, journals and new and old books for new words, new meanings of words and sentences that would clarify the meanings. One of the most active volunteers was the American doctor William Chester Minor. During the 20 years that the doctor collaborated he developed a friendship with the editor, James Murray. When Murray decided to visit doctor Minor, he found that the latter served a lifetime sentence in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane after he had killed an innocent worker. The intellectual doctor Minor was found to be mad as a hatter: at night he heard voices, he claimed he was kidnapped, tortured and abused and under the floor of his cell there would live a bunch of Pygmees. The biographies of Murray, Minor and the Oxford English Dictionary are nicely interrelated in this well-written book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A real life story
This is an unusual book about a man who made major contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary. It had many interesting aspects, not least how the entries for the dictionary... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Ann
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and Endearing
Beautifully told and thought provoking. History literally in the making. As an Oxonian myself it intrigues me. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Alison turner
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Fascinating
A geographical adventure spanning over a hundred years of culture including the unimaginable authentic coincidental fate and fever that lead to the masterful creation of the Oxford... Read more
Published 6 months ago by S. Kittrell
5.0 out of 5 stars a real gem of a quirky little book
In the early hours of the morning in Lambeth in 1872 George Merrett (to whom this book is dedicated) was making his way to work as a coal shoveller for a brewery when he was shot... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Nigel Marshall
3.0 out of 5 stars very interesting
worth a read
gives a fascinating insight to the coda for the english language, so how those that then use the language think an so act?
Published 7 months ago by Patchwork
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating.
I read this years ago and lent it to someone and lost it. I was describing the story to a friend and ended up buying it for him. He found it fascinating too.
Published 11 months ago by Moonbiker
4.0 out of 5 stars The story of the OED, through the lens of one of its hardest working...
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was a unique publication at the time - a dictionary of English words compiled over a period of twenty year involving hundreds of amateur... Read more
Published 14 months ago by D. W. Scott
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book
A wonderful book for anyone who loves words and has an interest in 'mystery' stories. It is incredible how bad events can contrive to produce something wonderful.
Published 15 months ago by Ms. Mary Wunderly
4.0 out of 5 stars Who knew the Oxford English Dictionary had such an interesting and...
The Oxford English Dictionary stands as probably the greatest lexicographical achievement of all time. Read more
Published 17 months ago by C. Ball
5.0 out of 5 stars The Surgeon of Crowthorne
I bought this because it was chosen by my book club. Put off reading it until a few days before the deadline.... then couldn't put it down. What an amazing story! Read more
Published 17 months ago by Jo
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