Book: The Professor and the Madman
Author: Simon Winchester
Edition: Harper Perennial-Paperback
Read: June 2008
Rated: 3½ out of 5
Edition: Harper Perennial-Paperback
Read: June 2008
Rated: 3½ out of 5
This popular book walks us through the troubled history of Dr William Chester Minor. Which really begs the questions of, who is Dr. Minor and why should we be interested?
The first question’s answer is answered very easily by Winchester. Dr. Minor was born to missionary parents in South East Asia. His mother died early and his father remarried. He had three siblings. He was Yale educated, where he rethought his Christianity, which he decided to drop. During the Civil War, he enlisted as a medical doctor, spending most of the war in New England. But, he did get sent south and was a doctor in the brutal Battle of the Wilderness. Winchester points to an incident where Minor had to brand an Irish person as being a pivotal point. His conjuncture is that this incident was the tipping point where a sensitive person such as Dr. Minor could have lost his mental balance. After this, Dr. Minor’s actions lead him to an asylum. After being released, Minor took an extended trip to Europe. While in London, he shot a man during a period of his nightly delusions. He was then locked up in the Broadmoor Asylum where he spent close to his remaining life.
It’s the second question where the fun starts. Minor was a major contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED had asked for volunteers to find quotes exemplifying words and their various meanings as well as the earliest uses of the meaning. Minor provided at least 10,000 quotes of words which made it into the dictionary. Usually his words were the hardest to find. Both the quantity, quality of the quote, with the efficiency of providing the quote at the appropriate time caught the attention of the editor, Dr. James Murray. This began the 20-30 year relationship, started out by pure chance, which became one of the few sources of comfort and enjoyment for Minor.
Winchester describes in great detail the making of the OED. The history includes Samuel Johnson and Richard Trench roles in the making of OED. Dr. Murray came to be editor because of both his skills as a lexicographer and availability. Winchester writes how over the years, the hundreds of thousands of words were compiled and how definitions, quotes and background was gathered. Winchester points out that the OED guiding principle depended on its rigorous dependence on gathering quotations from published or recorded uses of the English language (pg 25). This is good stuff.
Dr. Minor comes in during this part. With a great deal of free time, and a mind attentive to making a systematic study, Minor became a highly respected source of quotes within the OED community. Minor’s methods lead to the huge volume and great quantity.
But the second question still lingers in my mind. Why should we consider Dr. Minor? Why spend an afternoon reading about him? Why read about anybody? Most people’s lives are so common—no different than my own. Yet as both Chesterton and Pascal point out, each person is interesting. In fact as you look at people more you realize how interesting they become. Why is that?
Evidently Winchester thinks that individual lives are important. He takes a special interest in Georg Merritt. Merritt is the man Minor killed. To history and the great scheme of things, he is a footnote; a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time; a man of misfortune. But without Merritt, Minor would not be locked up. Without Merritt’s wife becoming friends with Minor and even forgiving Minor, the OED would be significantly less rich. It probably was Merritt’s wife who brought Minor books and in one of the books was a leaflet requesting volunteers for finding quotes for the OED.
Religion plays an underlying role in both Minor’s life and Winchester’s account. When reading Winchester’s account of Minor’s religious influences, you have to read with a sense that the observer is not unbiased in this area. For example, on page 49, Winchester makes the unsupported statement, Guilt—perhaps a frequent handmaiden among the peculiarly pious—seems to have intervened, even more than a teenager’s shyness or natural caution. It sounds like Winchester is reading 20th century norms into 1850’s missionary life.
Winchester shows a bit more distain for religious work on pg 103 where Trench being called a divine, says that it is only a term for good Victorians.
Yet on page 69, Winchester says that Minor was an artistic man, like someone with a soul. What does this statement mean? I doubt that Winchester meant it was as a religious statement, but when you get to bottom of things, how can it mean anything else—a person who has depth, a person who has meaning, a person who understands the nature of things.
It is hard to get away from the ultimate questions. When Winchester talks about previous dictionaries (pg 102), he asks Who now remembers their dictionaries and who today makes use of all that they achieved? A good question-one which can be personalized to all of us. What difference does it make that a human called Gary Duran every existed? What was Minor’s true calling? Doctor? Dictionary maker? Only the Maker can answer that.
Winchester does go on and talk about great men who would risk big for greatness. Winchester hits pretty close to home on page 133 where he says that Minor whole personality changed because he had something valuable to do. This is so true. If you ever want to demoralize someone, just tell them that their work does not count.
Murray is buried with appropriate honor. Minor with a small unobtrusive head stone. George Merritt only in an anonymous plot of ground. Where do we all end up? What does it matter? It matters not in what we do, or accomplish, nor in who we know, but in our faithfulness.
From Winchester’s account, Dr Minor had an immense sexual appetite. Dr Minor had several episodes of gonorrhea and other sexual diseases. In several cities where Minor was, he made a habit of visiting houses of pleasure. From Winchester’s account, Minor’s fascination with sex was from his days in Ceylon with his missionary parents. Seeing native girls topless made an impression on him. This would its way through his mind as the years passed on. Winchester thinks this may have been due to repression from his religious upbringing.
In my opinion some of the sexual nature of Minor’s sickness may have been over stated. On page 194, Winchester points to the temporary close relationship Minor had with Merritt’s widow. Winchester speculates that there may have been more than just a bond of friendship. It may have been a relationship with sex as well. Winchester then goes on and says that there is nothing which suggests this was the case. Then why bring it up?
So where did Minor’s madness originate from? Winchester provides several alternatives: Religion, repressed sexuality at an impressionable age, a heat stroke suffered in the Florida summertime sun, or war and brutality on a sensitive soul. All are provided as reasons and none are discarded. I suspect that the reason why there is not direct cause of Minor’s insanity is that humans are complex in their psychology. No easy answers or formulas. We all have our weaknesses and strengths which allows us to be different from our neighbor. Minor had withdrawn from the religious ties of his upbringing—which did carry its own baggage—but without the foundations for other supporting structures. Once a shock was given to his system, he did not recover. Winchester concluded that when Minor branded a deserter in the Civil War, it triggered the insanity (page 213)
When Minor castrates himself, Winchester credits the religious awaking (pg 190) Minor had been having over the two previous years. Neither the madness nor the sexual misconduct Minor had been experiencing most of this life. He goes after the guilt, not the guilty. Finally on page 193 after exploring Minor’s religious connections, Winchester points to his delusion, not religion as the culprit. Even then, Winchester reports that Minor is a deist, not a Christian.
Winchester for as much as he wants to be a historical writer, he is not a historian. The accuracy or better said, the precision of his words is lacking. Such as on page 17 when he describes “three of them” told the courtroom about the sad captain, Dr. Minor. Who is them? Turned out that it is three of the twenty witnesses and all three are from the police. Hard to figure out whom Winchester is talking about. Or on page 117 he talks about the horses sweating slightly. While a minor coloration, what source did he get this from? Also his view of Minor’s mental illness is through the lens of religion and sex. This colors his view of the strong events.
Even with its short-comings on perspective, the book makes fascinating reading. As expected when reading a book about a dictionary, you will find a great many words needing to be looked up. Winchester provides nine of his favorite words. As you read this book, be sure to have a dictionary close by—that is the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary.
- Lubricious – lewd
- Portmanteau - a large travelling bag made of stiff leather and opening into two equal parts; or before another noun consisting of two or more aspects or qualities
- Tocsin- an alarm bell or signal
- Japanned-OED does not have this word.
- Pall Mall- Gary’s question: does Pell Mell descend from Pall Mall?
- Consanguineous-of the same blood or origin; specifically : descended from the same ancestor
- Taffeta- a crisp plain-woven lustrous fabric of various fibers used especially for women's clothing
- Licanthropia-a delusion that one has become a wolf
- Fecund-intellectually productive or inventive to a marked degree
- Amanuenses-one employed to write from dictation or to copy manuscript
- Diktats-a harsh settlement unilaterally imposed
- Astrakhan-a cloth with a usually wool, curled, and looped pile resembling karakul
- Gerund- a verbal noun in Latin that expresses generalized or uncompleted action
- Fascicle-one of the divisions of a book published in parts
- Martinet-a person who stresses a rigid adherence to the details of forms and methods
- Ameliorate-to make better or more tolerable
- Priapism-an abnormal often painful persistent erection of the penis
- Parsimonious-frugal to the point of stinginess
- Alopecia-loss of hair, wool, or feathers
- OED Site: http://oed.com/
- Wikipedia- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_English_Dictionary
- Ask Oxford: http://www.askoxford.com/
- Richard Chevenix Trench
- Wikipedia- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Chenevix_Trench
- Poems- http://www.poemhunter.com/richard-chenevix-trench/
- Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries=Google Books
- Chesterton reference: It is very difficult to find an unimportant subject or even an uninteresting subject. I have done through most of my life looking for an uninteresting subject--or even an uninteresting person. It is the romance of my life that I have failed to find either of them yet. The Illustrated London News, January 11, 1913, "Bacon and Shakespeare, Again"
- Pascal reference: The greater intellect one has, the more originality one finds in men. Ordinary persons find no difference between men.-- Pensee's, 7
- to pile Pelion on Ossa - to attempt an enormous but fruitless task.