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The Professor and the Madman    by Simon Winchester order for
Professor and the Madman
by Simon Winchester
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 1999 (1998)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

This wonderful book, subtitled 'A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary', is the fascinating and poignant story of two key players in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The professor is James Murray, an amazingly knowledgeable former schoolteacher and the first serious editor of the OED. Dr. William Minor, a retired American military surgeon confined to the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, is the madman. Minor provided highly useful input to the OED for many years without the OED staff realizing that their important contributor was a certified lunatic.

Winchester describes the stories of the two protagonists from birth to death, how their lives eventually intersect, and the relationship that results. Along the way he gives the reader very interesting slices of social history. These include a look at the scholarly world of late Victorian and early Edwardian England, and at the extreme chaos and brutality of the Civil War battlegrounds. In addition, he reveals the science and history of lexicography (the work of writing a dictionary), which is actually much more interesting than I expected. Winchester also discusses insanity and the various theories and treatments available during Victorian times. All in all, the reader will learn a great deal in a very enjoyable manner.

As for the main story, Dr. Minor is imprisoned at Broadmoor in 1872 after committing a senseless murder of a stranger on a London street. He appears to have been haunted by demons, possibly an aftereffect of his harrowing experiences as a Civil War surgeon. Incarcerated at Broadmoor, he eventually becomes a volunteer contributor, one of many, to the development of the first edition of the OED. Using old Broadmoor records, the author is able to re-construct Minor's life and show how a profoundly insane man could also have excellent analytical skills and make superb contributions to the OED. Dr. Murray receives his extremely valuable input for many years without meeting him since Dr. Minor consistently refuses all personal contact. Eventually Murray forces a meeting and learns the truth about his wonderful volunteer. From that time on, a touching friendship develops between the two men and lasts the remainder of their lives.

I highly recommend The Professor and the Madman. The personal stories of both Miner and Murray are enthralling. The author does a skilled job of showing how their early years, families, environments and experiences shape their futures. The larger story of the OED is also fascinating and sent me to the local library to view the wonders of the OED and how it differs from lesser dictionaries. The story is really a must read for any lover of books and words.

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