Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
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 70 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 of a
friendship -- an account of two remarkable men whose strange 20-year
relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. Professor James
Murray, a former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the brilliant editor of the
OED project. Dr. W. C. Minor, a retired American surgeon 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. Not only was he remarkably prolific, sending in as many as ten
thousand definitions, but he was also a murderer, clinically insane, and locked
up in Broadmoor, England's 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.
Questions for Discussion
Who is Dr. W.C. Minor? How do you first come to know him at the beginning
of The Professor and the Madman? What role does he play in the
Who is James Murray? How would you characterize his early interest in
philology? How does Murray come to work on the Oxford English Dictionary?
What was the initial projection of how long the O.E.D. would take to
How does Dr. Minor's madness first reveal itself? How do his experiences
in Ceylon, at the Battle of the Wilderness, and in Florida relate to his
condition? What are some of the symptoms of his illness? How would you
describe his personality?
What did you think of the elaborate process of creating the Oxford English
Dictionary? Was it easy to visualize? Did it surprise you to learn that in
the end more than 6 million slips with definitions were submitted by
How would you describe Dr. Minor's life at the asylum? How did he have
access to books? What unusual visitor helped him in this respect? What
aspects of his situation at the asylum did you find especially unusual?
According to the author, how might Dr. Minor have learned of the creation of
How does his work on the O.E.D. change Dr. Minor's personality? How does
it impact his madness? What are some of the ideas and rumors about Minor
that float around the Scriptorium, where the O.E.D. is being written and
How does Murray first learn of Dr. Minor's status as a criminally insane
asylum inmate? How does Murray eventually come to know Minor? How would you
describe their relationship? What aspects of their interaction lead you to
How does Dr. Minor injure himself while he is at Broadmoor? How did you
interpret this act? Do you agree with the author that his dismemberment was
an attempt to purge himself of "unsavory" thoughts and deeds? How
does the arrival of Dr. Brayn change the living conditions at Broadmoor for
What elements of this story did you find especially harrowing,
fascinating, bewildering, surprising? Did you feel sympathetic toward Dr.
Minor? Were you surprised at the strong bond that developed between him and
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Harper Perennial.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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