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Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester is a story of the beginnings of the Oxford English Dictionary. James Murray took the job as editor of this work, but many others were involved in its creation. Winchester gives interesting details about several of these, such as Frederick Furnivall - thought to be the inspiration for Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. This book however, is primarily about one contributor, William Minor. Minor seemed like an ordinary contributor, but when Murray decided to visit him he was in for a surprise - Minor was an inmate of Broadmoor Asylum. Winchester has looked into this fascinating tale, separating out the myth from the reality, and the result is a highly enjoyable book.

Winchester examines the details of Minor's life, searching out reasons for his behaviour. Minor was a doctor during the American Civil War and was forced to inflict the punishment of branding on a defector. Being involved with an army punishing its own members within a country fighting itself clearly was harmful to such a sensitive person. During a visit to England he killed a man, and hence ended up in Broadmoor, where he had plenty of time to contribute to the new OED.

Each chapter starts with an entry from the dictionary. This is all very well, but some stretch to a page or more which tends to break up the flow of the book. I felt that this was a problem when several stories were being interleaved, which is otherwise very skillfully done.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews