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


1857 marked the beginning of one of the English language's most ambitious projects: the Oxford English Dictionary.  It took more than 70 years to complete and included more than 400,000 definitions.  As the years passed, its editor, Professor James Murray, became particularly curious about one of the dictionary's most prolific contributors.  Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon living in the English village of Crowthorne, submitted nearly 10,000 entries to the dictionary.  As the years passed and more tidy, handwritten submissions arrived, Murray set out to thank this industrious contributor, and was shocked to discover that Dr. Minor was a convicted murderer living in an asylum.  The Professor and the Madman is a fascinating portrait of the OED's creation and the strange friendship between two vastly different men. 

“All of a sudden his books, which had hitherto been merely a fond decoration and a means of letting his mind free itself from the grim routines of Broadmoor life, had become his most precious possession. For the time being at least he could set aside his imaginings about the harm that people were trying to inflict on him and his person: It was instead his hundreds of books that now needed to be kept safe, and away from the predators with whom he believed the asylum to be infested. His books, and his work on the words he found in them, were about to become the defining feature of his newly chosen life.”

Simon Winchester is a British journalist and the author of history and travel books.  His works include Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and The Professor and the Madman.  He lives in New York.

Published:  1998
Length:  252 pages
Set in:  Oxford and Crowthorne, England