The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

For some reason this was published in Britain under the title The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which sounds like a mild-mannered BBC drama that takes place in the Cotswolds or something.  But no!  This is in part the true tale of Dr. William Chester Minor, an astonishingly well-read Civil War surgeon, contributor of over 10,000 citations to the Oxford English Dictionary…and criminally insane murderer! He cut off his own penis!  It’s true!

During The Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, 5,371 Union soldiers deserted. In an effort to prevent additional desertion and avoid mass executions (the normal punishment for being AWOL), doctors were ordered to brand a 1.5 inch ‘D’ on the face of convicted deserters. Dr. Minor branded the face of an Irishman, and went mad– thoughts of retribution haunted him for the rest of his life.  It was this imagined retaliation that drove him to murder an innocent factory worker on the streets of London in 1872, after which he was imprisoned in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.  From there he found out about the OED, and sent submissions to the editor (a self-educated Scotsman named Murray).

So half of the Oxford English Dictionary was penned by a lunatic, and that’s part of what makes Winchester’s book so exciting to read; Dr. Minor helped create one of the most important works in the English language, and he was wackadoo crazy.  BUT, the OED isn’t an English language usage guide– it’s a comprehensive  history of word etymology, and the sheer idea that a complete inventory of the English language could be compiled, alphabetically, with representative quotations is amazing.  That it was done long before computers and primarily by two people–one of them completely out of his mind–is utterly astonishing.

Read all about it.

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