LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

The Surgeon of Crowthorne: a Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary


by Simon Winchester.

Simon Winchester introduces us to two of the most important characters in the making of the Oxford English Dictionary: the then editor, James Murray, and one of his most prolific volunteer contributors, a retired US army surgeon from Crowthorne, Dr W. C. Minor.

The first edition of the OED was almost seventy years in the making, and from circa 1880-1900 Dr W. C. Minor was one of the many “readers” to submit words (along with quotes to illustrate their use), eventually making many thousands of (particularly useful) contributions. For the first part of that period, he enjoyed a formal but friendly correspondence with the then editor, James Murray, but the two men had not met. Although the popular account of their meeting is apocryphal, for those first years Murray had no idea that one of his most helpful volunteers was an inmate of Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane, in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Minor was (what would probably now be called) a paranoid schizophrenic, and a murderer. When Murray discovered this detail, he went to visit Minor, and so began a firm friendship that lasted for thirty years. As well as that friendship, The Surgeon of Crowthorne (latterly titled The Professor and the Madman) interweaves Minor’s life, including the events that most likely contributed or triggered his delusions, with the birth of the OED and the project’s struggle to become established.

As ever, Winchester tells his story with the grounding of solid research. The characters are sympathetically presented and, rather than being left as a footnote, Minor’s victim, an innocent working man, George Merrett, is also depicted in some detail. I read with book in a matter of days, and Winchester’s postscript – his coda – had me breaking out in goosebumps.


Comments are closed.