The Professor and the Madman

Mysterious (mistîe · ries), a. [f. L. mystérium Mysteryi + ous. Cf. F. mystérieux.]
1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or purpose.

It is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of English letters. The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 414,825 precise definitions. But hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascinating and mysterious story — a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking.

Professor James Murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon from New Haven, Connecticut, who had served in the Civil War, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. But Minor was no ordinary contributor. He was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of Crowthorne, fifty miles from Oxford. On numerous occasions Murray invited Minor to visit Oxford and celebrate his work, but Murray’s offer was regularly — and mysteriously — refused.

Thus the two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor–that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane — and locked up in Broadmoor, England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN is an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary and literary history. With riveting insight and detail, Simon Winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man’s tortured mind and his contribution to another man’s magnificent dictionary.

“I found THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN both enthralling and moving, in its brilliant reconstruction of a most improbable event: the major contributions made to the great Oxford English Dictionary by a deeply delusional, incarcerated “madman”, and the development of a true friendship between him and the editor of the OED. One sees here the redemptive potential of work and love in even the most deeply, “hopelessly,” psychotic.”

— Oliver Sacks, M.D.

“Remarkably readable, this chronicle of lexicography roams from the great dictionary itself to hidden nooks in the human psyche that sometimes house the motives for murder, the sources for sanity, and the blueprint for creativity.”

— Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“An extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better. . . . [He] has written a splendid book.”

— The Economist

“Madness, violence, arcane obsessions, weird learning, ghastly comedy, all set out in an atmosphere of po-aced, high neo-Gothic. The geographical span is wide, from Dickensian London to Florida’s Pensacola Bay, from the beaches at Trincomalee to the Civil War battlefields of the United States. . . . It is a wonderful story.”

— John Banville, Literary Review

“This is almost my favorite kind of book: the work of social and intellectual history which through the oblique treatment of major developments manages to throw unusual light on humankind and its doings. . . . Simon Winchester’s effortlessly clear, spare prose is the perfect vehicle for the tale . . . absolutely riveting.”

— Will Self, The Times (London)

“It’s a story for readers who know the joy of words and can appreciate side trips through the history of dictionaries and marvel at the idea that when Shakespeare wrote, there we no dictionaries to consult…. Winchester, a British Journalist who’s written 12 other books, combines a reporter’s eye for detail with a historian’s sense of scale. His writing is droll and eloquent”

— Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

“Winchester’s history of the OED is brisk and entertaining”

— Mark Rozzo, Washington Post Book World

“THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN…is the linguistic detective story of the decade…. Winchester does a superb job of historical research that should entice readers even more interested in deeds than words.”

— William Safire, New York Times Magazine

“elegant and scrupulous”

— David Walton, New York Times Book Review

“Winchester has written a powerful account of the shifting foundations on which meaning is built, and the impoverishment of a language that could not describe or give peace to one of its makers.”

— Lithe Sebesta, New York Post

“Mr. Winchester deftly weaves…a narrative full of suspense, pathos and humor…. In this elegant book the writer has created a vivid parable, in the spirit of Nabokov and Borges. There is much truth to be drawn from it, about Victorian pride, the relation between language and the world, and the fine line between sanity and madness.”

— Daniel Mark Epstein, Wall Street Journal

“a fascinating, spicy, learned tale”

— Richard Bernstein, New York Times

“Simon Winchester, in his splendid, oddball slice of history THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, has come up with an irresistible hook… [an] utterly fascinating account of how a combination of scholarship and nationalism begat what would become the Oxford English Dictionary… If the initial sections of [Winchester's] tale have the appeal of a gaslight Victorian thriller, Winchester doesn’t leave it at that. He’s a superb historian because he’s a superb storyteller…. The strange richness of it all is enhanced by the flawless clarity of Winchester’s prose. Winchester, investigating an odd bit of background trivia about the making of one of the world’s great books, has the courage of his own curiosity. The elegant curio he has created is as enthralling as a good story can be and as informative as any history aspires to be.”

— Charles Taylor, Salon

“One of the great strengths of this book is historical mise-en-scene, particularly for nineteenth-century America and England…[a] marvelous work of historical and philogical imagination.”

— Linda Bridges, National Review