The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dicti

Winchester, Simon

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Sirridge, Marjorie
  • Date of entry: Feb-12-2001


This is a 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 dictionary. One sees here the redemptive potential of work and love in even the most deeply psychotic patient.

Incongruously the patient is an American physician who was discharged because of service-related mental instability from the U.S. Army after the Civil War and received a pension for life. He went to Europe to seek relief of his delusional symptoms and ended up killing a man. Judged to be criminally insane, he was institutionalized at the newly built showpiece of the British penal system, the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Broadmoor. While there he read an advertisement requesting volunteer help in reading specific books and making word lists and describing how the words were used in the books for the preparation of the new Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the next twenty years Dr. Minor, who was a voracious reader and had accumulated a large library, became the greatest contributor and maintained a lively correspondence with the famous editor, Dr. James Murray. For these many years they never met and Dr. Murray did not suspect that Dr. Minor was insane and institutionalized. After their meeting they became friends. The institutional care appeared to be very humane and Dr. Minor was a special patient in many ways, yet never regained his normal demeanor.


Aside from the fascinating story of Dr. Minor and a very good look at his mental illness, the story of Dr. Murray and the years of effort that went into the development of the amazing dictionary which was begun in 1857 is equally interesting. The typescript of the book adds a nice dimension: Monotype Bell (first used in 1788) for the main text, Clarendon for the extracts within the chapters and Times Roman for dictionary entries. The Wall Street Journal commented that the book is a narrative full of suspense, pathos, and humor. I agree.


Simon Winchester is a journalist.



Place Published

New York



Page Count