Summary and book reviews of The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman
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  • First Published:
    Jan 1998, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2005, 288 pages

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Book Summary

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.

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.

Chapter 1
The Dead of Night in Lambeth Marsh

Murder (m2.0de0), sb. Forms: a. 1 mor1or, -ur, 3-4 mor1re, 3-4, 6 murthre, 4 myr1er, 4-6 murthir, morther, 5 Sc. murthour, murthyr, 5-6 murthur, 6 mwrther, Sc. morthour, 4-9 (now dial. and Hist. or arch.) murther; b. 3-5 murdre, 4-5 moerdre, 4-6 mordre, 5 moordre, 6 murdur, mourdre, 6- murder. [OE. mor3or neut. (with pl. of masc. form mor1ras) = Goth. maur1r neut.:-OTeut. *mur1rom:-pre-Teut. *mrtro-m, f. root *mer-: mor-: mr- to die, whence L. mori' to die, mors (morti-) death, Gr. mort'j, brot'j mortal,T1. The most heinous kind of criminal homicide; also, an instance of this. In English (also Sc. and U.S.) Law, defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought; often more explicitly wilful murder.

In OE. the word could be applied to any homicide that was strongly reprobated (it had also the senses 'great wickedness', 'deadly injury', 'torment'). More strictly, however, it denoted secret murder, which in Germanic...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

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 ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Wall Street Journal

Deftly weaves into a narrative full of suspense, pathos and humor.

Book World Washington Post

Brisk and entertaining.

NY Times Book Review

Elegant. . .imaginative. . .One of the strangest modern literary stories.

Publisher's Weekly

With his cheeky way with a tale ('It is a brave and foolhardy and desperate man who will perform an autopeotomy' he writes of Minor's self-mutilation), Winchester celebrates a gloomy life brightened by devotion to a quietly noble, nearly anonymous task.

Time Out (UK)

[Winchester's]. . .casual and engaging prose makes the book appealing to lay readers of general history. . .the author can't seem to stop getting in the way of his story. . .psychological insights are often labored and conjectural. . . .an interesting read on the background of one of the most important books in the English language.

London Times

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.

The Economist

An extraordinary tale. . .a splendid book.

Reader Reviews

Millie

The Surgeon of Crowthorne
I was fascinated from the first page. In 1978 I treated myself to a complete set of the OED (13 volumes) and have used it ever since and have always been amazed at the wealth of information for every word including the first instance of its use and ...   Read More

eliendriel

Who Knew the Dictionary Could be So Much Fun?
I read this book on a whim, and could not put it down. If you liked the style of "Manhunt," or "Devil in the White City," then you'll love this book. The author takes the historical development of the Oxford English Dictionary, focuses the sub-story...   Read More

Mike H

An excellently written account of the making of the OED and the lives of Dr. Murray and Dr. Minor. Some criticize the book for being too simple at times, overly-exaggerated, or boring. However, a book about the dictionary and the characters behind ...   Read More

WLC

The Professor and the Madman captivates me for several reasons. Winchester provides an adaquate analysis of how the OED generated its own knowledge, how knowledge was (and is) constructed in particular ways that are and are not so ordered. That ...   Read More

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