Stranger than fiction

In the late 1800s, a professor named James Murray led the team which was preparing what would become one of the world’s greatest and most-renowned reference books: the Oxford English Dictionary.

Murray put out a call for volunteers to help in the arduous process of scanning centuries worth of books looking for the first appearances of words in print, or for citations which demonstrate that the meaning of a word has shifted.

Many such volunteers responded to the call, but one of the most surprising was a physician, W.C. Minor. Minor’s contributions were voluminous and impeccably-organized. The address given by Minor was a short train ride away from Oxford, and Murray eventually wanted to meet his generous and able collaborator in person. But Minor refused invitations to visit Murray or to attend a great banquet held to celebrate the dictionary project. Murray then resolved that he would, instead, visit Minor.

A widely-reprinted story has it that Murray didn’t find out the truth until he arrived at Minor’s address. The actual reveal was a little less dramatic in how it took place, but the information would have been jaw-dropping no matter how it was revealed. W.C. Minor, a former U.S. Army surgeon and a veteran of the Civil War, was a killer, found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity, and consigned by a British court to life at an asylum for the criminally insane.

I first read a version of this story many years ago, in one of the book compilations of Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story” radio series. So when I saw Simon Winchester’s  The Professor and the Madman available for Kindle loan through my local library, I eagerly put myself on the waiting list. I had the day off work today, and – apart from cleaning my oven and going to a Nashville Symphony concert planning meeting – I’ve spent much of it with my nose in Winchester’s well-researched, well-told tale.

Winchester lays out the basics of the relationship between Murray and Minor right at the outset, but then he goes back and gives you all the nuance and pathos, including a rather gruesome detail, a little more than two-thirds of the way through the book, which I had not been expecting. It’s an amazing story – on the one hand, the book covers the great achievement of the OED, which took 70 years to complete and which has such deep importance to language, learning and England. On the other hand, the book tells a heartbreaking story about a tortured soul, a Civil War surgeon whose paranoia may have been made worse by what he witnessed in battlefield hospitals, or by the role he was forced to take in punishing a deserter. And yet, in his more lucid moments, this mental patient and American expatriate was able to play a key role in one of the crowning glories of the British empire.

Winchester covers every aspect of the tale, including the sad story of Minor’s victim and the family he left behind. It’s the type of tale that, if created by a novelist, would be called outlandish and unbelievable.

Strongly recommended.