The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary Paperback – 3 Jun 1999
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.Read more ›
Ultimately, Winchester was able to get to almost all of the sources that I had used, as well as a number that I could never have reached. Nonetheless, there is some significant information that Winchester missed in his book, as well as a number of inaccuracies in "The Surgeon of Crowthorne."
About Minor's death Winchester writes, incorrectly, "There were no obituaries." An obituary was published in 1921 in "Yale University Obituary Record of Graduates Deceased During the Year Ending July 1, 1920." From this obituary one learns that Minor was born in the East Indies; that he entered the Yale School of Medicine in 1861 and was graduated in 1863; that he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, transferred to St. Elizabeth's in the U.S., and later transferred from St. Elizabeth's to The Retreat, in Hartford, where he died on March 26, 1920. The Yale obituary also mentions his brother Alfred.
Winchester refers to the lawyer who defended Minor in his murder trial, but does not mention the lawyer's name. My research suggests that the person who defended Minor is the same one who defended Oscar Wilde.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
One of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. An absolute must.Published 26 days ago by Jerry Hibbert
This is a fascinating tale beautiful told. Simon Winchester manages to pull you into the tale within the first few pages which is fascinating given that in theory it should be... Read morePublished 6 months ago by Rupert Grace
Great insight into historical London and that great works have an increadible life of their ownPublished 11 months ago by Bianabiana
the Surgeon of Cowthorne
A truly amazing book. gripping story, informative and emotional. It held my attention during a period of great personal sadness. Read more