Sunday, October 16, 2011
The Professor and the Madman
By Simon Winchester
For centuries, the English language went without a complete, comprehensive dictionary. Finally, it was decided that such a dictionary should be created, backed up by extensive scholarship and quotations from literary works and other writings illustrating the meanings of words and how the meanings changed as the language did.
Professor James Murray became the chief editor of the dictionary as it was being created. Coming from a ordinary family, it was soon apparent that young James was no ordinary child. Extremely intelligent and consumed with a hunger for knowledge, James excelled in school. But since his parents were not able to pay for his further schooling, he quit at the age of 14. That didn't mean an end to his scholarship, as he continued to educate himself in a wide variety of fields, including archaeology, languages, and history. By the age of twenty he was the headmaster of the local academy for boys. It was at about this time that he discovered his passion for Anglo-Saxon and was soon presenting learned papers on the subject.
Meanwhile, across the ocean in America was another young man of about the same age as Murray. William Minor, unlike Murray, was born to a family of distinction and wealth. Like Murray, however, Minor too was a bright, intelligent and gifted lad, if a little on the sensitive side. He pursued the study of medicine and became a talented and competent surgeon, this at the time of the American Civil War. Dr. Murray enlisted and before long found himself performing surgery on the battlefield. But his sensitive nature was overwhelmed by horror of war and his fragile mind cracked. He left the military in an attempt to recover his mental balance and eventually decided a trip abroad might help, which is how he came to be in London. The change of scenery did not help, his private demons still plagued Minor. Early one morning, in the grip of his delusion of persecution, Minor shot and killed a man, a man Minor didn't know and who had never met and who was simply on his way to work.
The courts were lenient and recognized Minor's illness so instead of hanging he was incarcerated at Broadmoor, a prison for the criminally insane. He lived pretty well there, in a private room and with money from his military pension and funds from his family back in the USA, Minor amassed quite a large library of books which he was allowed to keep in his room.
Meanwhile Professor Murray was sending out a call to the public asking for volunteers to read and look for words and note down the passages where the word's context helped to reveal its meaning. Thousand of slips of papers poured into the Scriptorium, the building where the dictionary was being created, and one of the most prolific and helpful of the volunteers was Dr. Minor. And while Professor Murray relied on and valued the contributions that Dr. Minor was making to the dictionary, he had no idea for many years that one of his most important volunteers was a madman locked up in an insane asylum.
It sounds like a dry subject, the creation of a dictionary. But the human drama behind the fact makes this anything but a dry subject. Dr. Minor's story is so sad and compelling and his life was such a waste, except for the work he did to help with the creation of the dictionary. It was the one of the few bright spots in his otherwise blighted life. Reading about his story and the story of the dictionary and its editor, Professor Murray, was really interesting. It was a very good read.