Doctor and dictionary
For almost two decades beginning in 1882, Dr. William Chester Minor, retired army surgeon and captain of the Union Army during the American Civil War, labored unceasingly, day after day, reading and researching sixteenth and seventeenth century books, making notes on more than 12,000 slips of paper, and mailing them to the Scriptorium of Dr. James Murray, editor and compiler of the Oxford English Dictionary. He was one of the major contributors to that monumental work that from its inception took seventy years to assemble and was finally published in its complete form in 1927 in twelve volumes containing almost two million quotations. Conceived not as a mere dictionary, it was to be a biography of every word in the English language, with definitions and notes as to when a particular word was first used and by whom.
Numerous people contributed to this monumental enterprise, scanning books and articles and sending the results of their research on paper slips to Oxford. But Dr. Minor’s work was invaluable, as none of his contributions were ever rejected as redundant or useless. He worked all day, using his library sent over from Connecticut and augmented by books he would order from the publishing houses in London. But at night, in his cell, surrounded by piles of books rising to the ceiling, he was tormented by enemies trying to poison him, by the Irish of the Revolutionary Army, by young boys creeping through the interstices of the floor or lowering themselves down from the rafters of the ceiling, defacing his books, stealing his flute, beating him, using electricity on his body, chloroforming him and inserting metallic biscuits coated with poison into his mouth, making a pimp of him, violating him in indescribable ways, and forcing him to participate in indecent sexual acts. Rational during the day, he barricaded his door at night with furniture and attached to strings to the furniture to awaken him if anyone tried to enter his bedroom. After being tormented by these nightly visitations for decades, when already a wizened old man, he used a penknife in a moment of desperation and guilt to amputate his penis.Yet as a younger man he had served honorably in the Union army; had seen gangrene, amputation, filth blood and pain, men groaning and dying from dehydration, diarrhea, typhoid and typhus fever. He served under General Ulysses Grant in the ferocious Battle of the Wilderness, had seen mutilated bodies, shattered limbs, broken heads, and crude wagons pulling bleeding casualties to the dressing stations. He had witnessed cruel punishments of deserters who were humiliated, tortured, suspended by their thumbs, nailed to trees, or crucified, or branded. His superiors reported he was a skillful physician, an excellent operator, and a scholar. But after the war his behavior underwent a change.
Steadily complaining of people abusing him, he challenged one of his supposed persecutors to a duel. He regularly frequented rough bars and music halls; was reputed to have a prodigious sexual appetite; contracted gonorrhea and tried to cure it unsuccessfully by injecting white Rhine wine into his urethra. He was interned in a hospital in Washington for 18 months; then his doctors concluded he was incurable; and he was discharged from the Army with a generous pension. He left for England, and took his gun with him. But his night tormentors followed him; so in February 1872 he shot what he thought was an intruder who had entered his room at night, following him into the streets and severing the spine and carotid artery of a laborer father of six children who happened to be passing by. Determined “guilty on account of insanity” according to the McNaghton rules, he was sent to the Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Broadmoor. Given special privileges because of his special case and erudition, he was housed in two cells and allowed free access to books. Around 1880, he heard about the call for volunteers for the Oxford Dictionary project and was accepted. He plunged into working from his suite of two cells, for almost two decades, reading, writing notes, and sending them to Oxford to Dr. James Murray, who for a long time thought his contributor was a retired surgeon with much time on his hands. In a probably apocryphal but dramatic version of their meeting, Dr. Murray traveled by train to Broadmoor, was ushered into an imposing hall, and introduced himself to a man of undoubted importance with a greeting he had so long rehearsed, honored at last to make the acquaintance of his most assiduous collaborator. After a momentary mutual embarrassment, the man so addressed cleared his throat, and explained:
I regret, not sir that I am. It is not at all as you suppose. I am in fact the superintendent of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been the patient for more than twenty years. He is our longest staying resident.
Filled with astonishment and sympathetic interest, Dr. Murray was taken to see Dr. Minor in his cell. The two became friends, meeting regularly, taking tea, talking and working on problems of philology. Thus arose the strange friendship between Dr. James Murray, the intellectual colossus who laid the foundation of the Oxford Dictionary, and Dr. William Chester Minor, the paranoid schizophrenic surgeon inmate of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane and one of the major contributors to the dictionary.
Dr. Minor was held at Broadmoor for 38 years, becoming by far its longest stay inmates. He was paroled in 1910 by Winston Churchill, then Home secretary, on condition that he would be taken into custody to America and never return. He died in 1920 at the age of 85. His story was told in 1998 by Simon Winchester in a Penguin book entitled the Surgeon of Crowthorne, the major source of this vignette.
- Simon Winchester: The Surgeon of Crowthorne, Penguin Books, 1998
- The History of the Oxford English Dictionary, in The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition,1991,p xii
- William Chester Minor, Wikipedia – several articles
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief
Winter 2013 | Sections | Literary Vignettes