The Professor and the Madman

Now here is an interesting story. I just finished reading a book called “The Professor and the Madman” about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. The undertaking was absolutely massive and took about 75 years to complete.

From the perspective of sheer work, it illustrates how much information humanity is beginning to amass. The OED tried to comprehensively survey every word in the English language, and it took years. Now, we are assembling articles on every topic or idea in all language (wikipedia) and the project is, after only 10 years or so, already enormous. Its very interesting how close these two projects were to each other. The leader of the OED project, James Murray, recruited readers with advertisements in journals and newspapers asking for ordinary people to send in quotations that illustrated the meanings of words, and wikipedia, on a much more massive scale, also solicits information from average people. It seems that humanity is most prolific when it engages the knowledge of all its members.

The real star (villain?) of this book though is not Murray but a man named William Chester Minor. Minor was a wealthy American born in the Southeast Asia where at a young age he developed what I think is, though the author never names it as such, a kind of nymphomania. He writes obsessively of the naked bodies of the natives, the girls of Ceylon, who corrupted him and stuck with him for the rest of his life. But this sexual obsession was just the first of many disastrous psychological happenings.

Minor then went to serve in the Civil War on the side of the Union as a doctor. During the war, he was ordered to administer the punishment for desertion at the time: branding. The man he branded was Irish, and as a doctor, he was forced to carry it out. He never forgot that moment either and for the rest of his life, he was terrified of Irish people, believing that his actions on that day had been related to the entire Irish race.

He moved to London and endured terrible dreams of Irish people tormenting him as he slept as well as visions of nameless intruders, sometimes of devilish origin who tortured him and made him do unspeakable things that he would not discuss. Some of these things seem to involve pedophilia, again weaving in the sexual deviancy of Minor’s psychological illnesses.

While living in London, Minor was a constant visitor to brothels, living a life of extreme sexual decadence in the exploited and poor whorehouse districts of the London slums. One night, supposing that he had confronted one of his many nameless intruders, Minor shot a man and promptly confessed to the police. He was put in an insane asylum where he would stay for forty or so years until he was released back to America to die.

What did he do for all those years? Well, astoundingly, he saw one of Murray’s advertisements for people to work on the just-beginning OED. Minor was hooked and he began what ended up being for him, a kind of penance. He was always contrite. He apologized to the widow of the man he killed and earned her forgiveness, but in working on the dictionary, he became happy. Over the course of his time in the Broadmoor sanitarium, ALL HE DID was read books WORD BY WORD and write down which sentences illustrated which word. When it was all said and done he was acknowledged as one of the most influential helpers to the dictionary project and to this day many words that one might look up in the OED has quotations and citations written by this man. His system was revolutionary and his organization was impeccable. By doing words ahead of time, he could keep pace with the editors of the dictionary and so allow them to make greater progress as they worked, though separated by distance, in tandem.

He never did become sane though, and he, by attempting to rejoin civilization while still within the walls of the insane asylum by working on the dictionary, began to revere  and idolize Murray, the editor of the dictionary. The two became friends over the years Murray even looked out for the mad Minor’s welfare. After a while though, Minor absorbed Murray’s strong religious convictions and to make good, yet again, for all his sins, Minor decided to cut off his own penis. He was a doctor so he took the proper precautions including sterilization and constricted blood flow to that area to prevent bleeding out.

I’m not sure what the lesson of this book is, but one thing that leaps to mind is that you never know who will move humanity forward. You just can’t tell who has the skills and the disposition to do what the age  needs to be done. Some early mathematicians spent most of their time just writing out thousands of pages of sums and multiplication problems, and Minor recorded words so that the other scholarly advances of the 20th century could take place with a language framework. Before the OED, it didn’t really mean anything to say “I’m going to look that up,” but Minor made it possible for diverse English speakers to move closer together in the systematization of the language they were all using. He was, I think, not a bad man. I mean, he was a bad man, but notice how hard he tried to be good. At every turn  he accepted pain and drudgery in the hopes that he could be reaccepted into society despite his crimes. He never was. But he never stopped trying to make up for what he did, whether it be apologizing to the widow of the man he killed, working tirelessly for the OED, or slicing off his genitals. Here was a man obsessed with doing right; it’s not that he lacked a moral conscience, it’s just that he was so routinely overwhelmed by raw psychological forces beyond his control. A very tragic tale in my book and a testament to the enormous power of the sexual strictures of his day.


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