The Professor and the Madman


Simon Winchester

1998 (1999, North America)

“And so he would work away, day after day—the tiny spy window in his door clicking open and shut every hour or so from the outside as the Broadmoor attendants checked on the safety and the existence of their strange patient.”

The Professor and the Madman is the second book by Simon Winchester that I’ve read, and it’s the second book by Simon Winchester that I’ve quite enjoyed.

The original English title was The Surgeon of Crowthorne, but North American readers could not be expected to know that Crowthorne is the home of England’s infamous Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital. Besides, publishers often treat American readers as sensation-seeking simpletons. Men Who Hate Women (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) are just two of many prominent examples.

So in North America, we get The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  

Whatever the title, Winchester’s book, like his previous The Map That Changed the World, tells a fascinating story of an extraordinary individual. Doctor W. C. Minor was an American, a Civil War veteran, a murderer, and, yes, a madman. His part in the creation of the OED is interesting and impressive, but it’s the human story of a ruined man graced for a time with a passion for words that raised his troubled life to a level approaching tragedy.

Winchester spends more time on the person who was Dr. Minor than he does on either James Murray, the professor of the title and the famous editor of the OED, or on the dictionary itself. And it’s this focus that gives the book its force. Murray is interesting, and the OED is very interesting — but it’s the mad Dr. Minor who captured my imaginations and held my attention.

The daily reports flow in a kind of seamless syrup of insanity. Four cakes stolen; his flute gone; his books all marked; he himself frog-marched up and down the corridor by Attendants James and Annett. A spare key used at night to allow villagers into his rooms to abuse him and his possessions. Doctor Minor, in his drawers and shirt, stockings and slippers, complaining that small pieces of wood were forced into his lock, that electricity was used on his body, that a “murderous lot’ had beaten him during the night and had left a savage pain all along his left side. Scoundrels came to his room. Attendant Coles came at 6 A.M. and “used my body”—”It is a very dirty business,” he screamed one morning, standing now only in his drawers, “that a fellow cannot sleep without Coles coming in like that.” Again as before: “He made a pimp of me!”

While it’s true that passages like the one above draw their inspiration from the surviving daily records of Broadmoor, it’s also true that it’s in the more public parts of the book, the chapters on James Murray and on the history of the decision to begin work on the OED, that Winchester has the most historical support for his account.

Yet I kept yearning for the chapters where Minor was absent to end quickly so that we could return to Winchester’s admittedly more speculative, more “creative” story of the inner world of his mad doctor. In these chapters, Winchester’s history dissolves into historical fiction, but it’s high-quality and highly-readable speculation, and for my money these are the best parts of the book.

Still, there is the OED, surely the greatest of modern scholarly collaborations. So what remains is to pick up a copy of Winchester’s 2003 book, The Meaning of Everything, a work about, not the meaning of everything, but about the book that contains the meaning of everything. After the international success of The Professor and the Madman, it was almost inevitable that Winchester would tackle the story of the OED itself.

As one of those word nerds who’s been known sometimes to read a dictionary just for the fun of it, I’m looking forward to tucking into this one.

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