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on 11 November 2013
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 acquaintance with the detail once again. Sure enough, I was as transfixed with it as I was the first time. A tale of tragedy incorporated with the enormous task of putting together our very first Oxford English Dictionary.
There had been other dictionaries before of course, but this proved to be the definitive.
Simon Winchester is a 'past-master' of research and story telling that makes you keep turning pages until well in to the late evening.

Derrick Orton
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on 12 September 1998
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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on 24 May 2017
Simon Winchester introduces us to two of the most important characters in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary: the then editor, James Murray, and one of his most prolific volunteer contributors, a retired US army surgeon from Crowthorne, Dr W. C. Minor.

The first edition of the OED was almost seventy years in the making, and from circa 1880-1900 Dr W. C. Minor was one of the many “readers” to submit words (along with quotes to illustrate their use), eventually making many thousands of (particularly useful) contributions. For the first part of that period, he enjoyed a formal but friendly correspondence with the then editor, James Murray, but the two men had not met. Although the popular account of their meeting is apocryphal, for those first years Murray had no idea that one of his most helpful volunteers was an inmate of Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane, in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Minor was (what would probably now be called) a paranoid schizophrenic, and a murderer. When Murray discovered this detail, he went to visit Minor, and so began a firm friendship that lasted for thirty years. As well as that friendship, "The Surgeon of Crowthorne" interweaves Minor’s life, including the events that most likely contributed or triggered his delusions, with the birth of the OED and the project’s struggle to become established.

As ever, Winchester tells his story with the grounding of solid research. The characters are sympathetically presented and, rather than being left as a footnote, Minor’s victim, an innocent working man, George Merrett, is also depicted in some detail. I read with book in a matter of days, and WInchester’s postscript – his "coda" – had me breaking out in goosebumps.
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on 9 September 1998
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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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.
Winchester stresses what an immense task compiling a full dictionary of the English language was - something we take for granted now - non-existent in Shakespeare's day. The O.E.D.'s editor, James Murray, recognized Minor's contributions as particularly insightful and valuable. Minor had his own method of tracking and classifying words and was able to fulfill Murray's needs in a way that far outstripped the other suppliers. Murray sought out Minor to acknowledge his efforts. It was an unusual association for the time - particularly in the face of Minor's continuing fantasies of persecution.
Winchester's use of definitions as chapter headings is an effective lead-in to the main text. His own word skills aren't wanting, and his descriptive prowess is excellent. Sprinkled with line drawings, the graphics help convey the feeling of the era. If there is a flaw in this book, it's in the lack of an index. A history without an index is incomplete. Still, it's the story that demands attention, which any reader will freely give that as this exemplary narrative progresses. He manages to weave a needed sample of an individual's history within a wider, but comprehensive picture. More accounts of noteworthy, but previously unknown people are needed. It's to be hoped that others will follow Winchester's creditable effort. [stephen a. haines - 2005-08-15]
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on 7 February 2001
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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on 26 May 1999
The subject of Winchester's book is Sir James A. H. Murray, editor of the "Oxford English Dictionary," and Dr. William C. Minor, the American volunteer who worked on the "O.E.D." for 20 years while an inmate in the Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane. I am a New York playwright who, in 1995, completed a full-length drama focusing James Murray and William Minor, called "The Dictionary," and whose help Mr. Winchester sought when he was first considering writing his book. (Winchester mentions me in his Acknowledgments.) There is a serious problem with Winchester's book. Mark Rozzo characterizes it perfectly in his "Washington Post" review of "The Professor and the Madman": ". . . we're never sure when Winchester is cleaving to facts and when he is fictionalizing." Winchester also missed some significant information in his book. Moreover, there are a number of inaccuracies in "The Professor and the Madman." 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. The man's name is Edward Clarke. I am surprised that Winchester did not seize upon this possibility. Winchester theorizes that Minor's clinically paranoid dread of the Irish, and of the Fenians in particular, was the result of his experience as a Union Army Surgeon with Irish troops during the Civil War. Winchester neglects the fact that during the years that Minor was stationed in New York (on Governors Island) the Fenians were, in fact, his real enemy. Minor lived in New York during 1867 and 1868, when the local papers frequently covered events pertaining to the revolutionary movement in Ireland and to activities of the Irish in New York. In March of 1867 the Irish cause held the front page of just about every newspaper every day. It was during the week of March 18 that the expectation of a Fenian attack on Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time, appeared in at least three separate articles in three different papers. News of U.S. troops being moved from New York to the border to thwart the offensive also made headlines. That Minor would have been selected to assist in the battlefield action against the Fenians is not unlikely. This attack never took place; however, less than a year before, the Fenians had staged an assault on Canada from New York State. Eight hundred Irishmen crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. They were subsequently defeated by U.S. troops, and about 700 Fenians were arrested. Minor would have known of this. Winchester mentions the American vice-consul-general and quotes a letter of his to the Medical Superintendent of Broadmoor, but neglects to cite his name, which is Joshua Nunn. Winchester also failed to locate a series of twenty-two letters by Joshua Nunn, an important source of information regarding Minor. The letters to Minor's family and friends in America contain particulars that conflict with some of Winchester's assumptions regarding Minor's life at Broadmoor and his relations with his family. Joshua Nunn clearly went beyond the call of duty in his assistance to, and profound concern for, Minor. Nunn was the man who handled all the details of Minor's legal situation as well as Minor's living conditions at Broadmoor. He was also very involved in the press accounts. Nunn not only corresponded and met with Minor and his family but also visited Minor at Broadmoor. According to the Nunn letters, the family did not want Minor returned to an asylum in the U.S. They were satisfied to let him remain at Broadmoor. This information contradicts Winchester's indication that the family would have rejoiced at Minor's return. Nunn was surprised at the family's neglect of Minor and at their refusal, at one point, to send Minor any more money at Broadmoor. Nunn makes very clear that Minor's mail was heavily censored. This conflicts with Winchester's implication. Winchester makes a mystifying observation at the end of his book. He states that it was only at the completion of the "Oxford English Dictionary," in 1927, that Americans could say that the Dictionary "was now, at least partly, of their own making." From the very beginning Americans had the right to claim that the Dictionary was, to a significant extent, a creation of their own making. In Murray's first years of editing the "O.E.D.," fully one half of the 800 volunteer readers with whom he worked were American. James Murray felt that his most avid support came from the United States. He said, "...it is Americans upon whom I depend above all." He called Americans "the most reliable and trustworthy volunteers." In 1883 Murray wrote, "I truly believe that the future of English scholarship lies in the United States, where the language is studied with an enthusiasm unknown here and which will soon leave us far behind." "The Professor and the Madman" focuses on some of the same fascinating aspects of the collaboration of Murray and Minor that first inspired me to dramatize the story. It is important, however, to look beyond the surface of material Winchester presents as truth.
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Featuring a storyline seemingly made for Hollywood, this intriguing exposition of, as the subtitle says, murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, is one of those rare tales that literally grabs the reader and forces its words down his throat with a most pleasurable force. I am ashamed to admit that I, a self-described scholar, had no idea of the unfathomable knowledge incorporated into the acclaimed Oxford English Dictionary nor the sheer effort involved in its creation. My admiration for James Murray, the principal editor, and everyone else involved with a bibliographic achievement akin to the building of the Great Pyramid, is unbounded. The story of the seventy-year project to write the greatest dictionary of the English language is fantastic by itself. When the story of the dictionary's most ardent and mysterious contributor is added to the mix, the story becomes almost unbelievable.
William Chester Minor, an American doctor, became perhaps the most helpful contributor to the editors of the burgeoning Oxford English Dictionary. Employing a unique, thorough method in his indefatigable efforts, he won the great admiration and affinity of Murray and became intricately involved with the project. Murray envisioned this man as a medical man of means, surrounded by shelves of books from which he drew his information and nursed his affinity for lexicographical efforts. Dr. Minor, as it turns out, was a man of leisure, possessed of a significant library of books, and intellectually gifted. He was also a certifiably insane murderer. Locked inside an insane asylum, he had nothing but time on his hands, and he used twenty years of that time to send thousands and thousands of references to Dr. Murray's editorial staff. In some ways, Dr. Minor's life was far from bad; while he was in an asylum, he was allowed two rooms, one of which he used as a study; he was allowed to purchase books and other luxuries, communicate with anyone in the outside world, hire a fellow inmate as a servant, and enjoy walks inside the grounds of the asylum complex. Despite the liberties allowed him, though, he suffered terribly from his mental afflictions. He feared that Irishmen, pygmies, and other persons crept into his room at night, defacing his possessions, trying to poison him, forcing him to commit lewd, indecent acts with men, women, and children. Clearly, he was insane and remained so throughout his life. His crime was murder, but he felt great remorse for his sin and even struck up a friendship with the widow of the man he had killed. All of these facts were not known by James Murray until years after his professional association with the mysterious Dr. Minor began, nor did the professional relationship end once the truth was discovered.
The author relates a romanticized tale of Murray's discovery of Dr. Minor's condition, and then debunks the myth by giving the real story, one no less fascinating in its truth. The story of his friendship with poor Dr. Minor through the ensuing years is rather touching. It becomes all but impossible to admire and sympathize with this man despite the state of his mind and the fact that he was a murderer. I will not reveal the most shocking part of Dr. Minor's story here, but it is a rather striking occurrence, I can assure you.
I loved this book. The story of the dictionary's creation was almost as fascinating as the incredible tale of Dr. Minor. The author does indulge his own obvious affinity for lexicography by delving into the complex definitions and histories of certain words early on, but this can be forgiven in that it represents the type of work James Murray devoted his life to in service to the Oxford English Dictionary. I also found myself wishing a time or two that the author would refrain from describing aspects of Minor's life through the window of his own imagination, but such passages take nothing away from a story that seems to have a life of its own and almost begs to be told.
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on 17 November 1998
Mitchell Redmond writes a mediocre review of Simon Winchester's PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN. Redmond denies Winchester much of the original research which could have contributed to the depth of the work. Winchester, nonetheless, writes an intriguing yarn of insanity/brilliance which are so often intertwined in creative and intellectual works. It does not seem that Winchester attempts the ultimate work; it is a slim volume compared to the weight of his subject. It is not academic in terms of noting sources (which I found at times discouraging). It is anecdotal in approach and in presentation. Winchester succeeds in writing an easily read and understood history of a project so far beyond typical human consideration. He should be applauded for his effort and his result. This book is fun to read, simply put. Redmond seems driven mutually by spite and joy. I can see him giggling to himself as he took notes on Winchester's omissions. Well, Mr. Redmond how would he know they were omissions if you purposefully denied him information. Your decided effort to deny information has made you look foolish, not brilliant for finding the information first. Good for you! In the name of the story, you should have opened your findings to Winchester, allowed him a shared piece of your knowledge. Now, when thousands of people read his version, they will read something short of what it could have been. This short-changed version is thanks to you. You have, by denying him, and willfully allowing him to write short of a full story, done something akin to steeling original materials from the archive. That is upsetting. If he was better suited to tell this story to the world, you should have acknowledged that, and accepted the role as a contributor. I, for one, wish you had. And I also wish that you had not written that spiteful review. Winchester has written something for us to value. The OED is one of the greatest works of academia and literature; it is certainly too bad that the widest read version of its creation has been shortchanged by someone being spiteful.
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on 26 July 2011
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 work to the editor of that dictionary from his cells in Broadmoor. Minor was spared the noose after the court had decided - rightly - that he was insane.

Winchester's book has been criticised on two grounds. First, that the basic story is rather thin for book length treatment and has been extended by means of background material, ornate physical descriptions and so on. Second, that the boundary between fact and fiction is not clear.

As for the first charge, it's true that the story is developed at a slow and careful pace, but the background material is compelling. Thus we learn about the enlightened treatment of the insane in the English criminal justice system, the brutal punishments in use in the American Civil War (including branding), the history of dictionary making, the categorisation of mental illness.

On the charge of fictionalisation, Winchester should I think be acquitted - for example he rejects the attractive (but untrue) tale that the editor of the OED, James Murray, only found out about Minor's situation when he went to visit him at Broadmoor. Where Winchester is speculating, as for example on the question of what triggered Minor's insanity, this is made clear.

The audiobook consists of an unabridged reading by Winchester himself. It is in general very well done. Perhaps it was a mistake to attempt a Scottish accent when recounting the words of James Murray - Winchester's effort at Border Scots is not much better than Dick van Dyke's characterisation of the cockney. But the normal reading voice is a pleasant Oxford English.
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