Saturday, November  23, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

OED and the Mad Doctor
Mohinder Singh

WHEN Shakespeare wrote his plays there was no dictionary. Only by the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson, "one of the the most eminent literary figures of all time", decided to compile a standard English dictionary; the challenge which so many others before had flinched. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language in two volumes has remained an unparalleled triumph, notwithstanding certain criticism that he allowed his own personality to invade the pages.

A hundred years later, proposals were floated to make what was referred to simply as the "big dictionary". After a few shaky starts, in 1879 Dr James Murray (1837-1915) took over as editor of the proposed Oxford English Language Dictionary. Murray was the most suitable choice. Besides being a philologist of repute and conversant with several languages, he displayed prodigious energy, unflagging industry, high organisational ability, and a congenial disposition.


Within days of taking over, Dr Murray set up a special unit on the new premises, named Scriptorium. And widely published a 4-page appeal for volunteers from the English-reading public to help locate where particular words had been used in books. The basic approach was that for each word included in the dictionary, it would not only put forth spelling, pronunciation, and etymology, but also a string of quotations.

There was this rigorous dependence on gathering from published or other recorded uses of English to illustrate the use of the sense of every single world. By gathering and including selected quotations, the dictionary could demonstrate how exactly a word has been employed over the centuries, how it has undergone subtle changes of shades of meaning, or spelling or pronunciation. And, perhaps most important of all, when such a word slipped into the language in the first place. No other means of dictionary compilation could do such a thing.

After decades of sustained work, finally by 1928 it became possible to publish the New English Dictionary in 12 weighty volumes. It was subsequently named Oxford English Dictionary, or familiarly known by its initials as the OED.

Over the following years there were 5 supplements and then, half a century later, a 20-volume Second Edition. The book remains in all senses a truly monumental, work, the most definite of all guides to the language that’s become the lingua franca. The OED now figures commonly in libraries and is still cited in courtrooms, schools and lecture halls.

Into the long, illustrious annals of the OED, there weaves an incredible but true story of an insane American army doctor, W.C. Minor. The story, duly researched, is told by Simon Winchester in the bestseller The Professor and the Madman (Harper Collins, 1998).

William Minor was born in Ceylon in 1834 and brought up there. His father, a missionary, headed a small station near Trincomalee, the British naval base. The Minors were first-line American aristocracy.

William studied at a local school. Spoke good Sinhalese, and some Tamil and Hindi.But the growing teenager began showing unusual lascivious interest in young Ceylonese girls. His parents, perhaps sensing trouble, send him to the USA, where in 1863 he graduated with a medical degree from Yale University.

By this time American civil war had started. Minor joined the army as a medical man. The sensitive fresh recruit witnessed a few astonishingly bloody encounters. But what possibly unhinged his mind was an incident where rather unwillingly, he was called upon to brand the face of an Irish army deserter with a burning iron. From then on the young doctor seemed to suffer from a horrible delusion that the Irish were out to kill him in revenge.

Minor rose to the full rank of a commissioned captain. But day by day his behaviour became more bizarre. Fearing all the time he would be attacked by some Irish fellows, he started carrying a pistol. Again he began frequenting prostitutes night after night. Caught venereal disease several times. He was classified as "delusional", and admitted into Washington’s St Elizabeth Lunatic Asylum.

Eventually Minor was retired from the army. His pay and pension were protected, being "incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty".

Released from the asylum in 1971, he journeyed to Europe, staying mostly in London. His idea was that his Irish tormentors would lose track of him. He also harboured plans of doing watercolours, for which he showed a flair. In London Minor stayed in Lambeth, a run-down district near Waterloo railway station. This was surprising because he had the means to live upscale. Alarming delusions about his being attacked persisted. He went to the extent of complaining several times to Scotland Yard about it. The police thought he wasn’t right in the head.

One night in November, he thought someone was standing at the foot of his bed to attack him. Minor took out his gun and ran down chasing. There he saw a man going away and aimed a shot at him. As the man broke into a run, Minor fired more shots, one fatal bullet hitting him in the neck.

The police arrived on the scene. Minor admitted he had shot a wrong one mistakenly. The dead man, a brewery worker with six children and a pregnant wife, became a subject of much public sympathy. Funds were raised for his family.

The jury found Dr Minor legally innocent of murder, being of unsound mind. The lord chief justice then applied the only sentence that was available to him. "You will be detained in safe custody until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known." That meant incarceration for life.

Minor was moved to the Broadmoor’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Crowthorne. He, a former surgeon-captain, U.S. Army, belonging to one of the oldest and best-regarded families of New England, was destined to become the longest-staying resident there.

At Broadmoor, Minor was allotted a two-roomed cell on the choicest top floor. The American Consul had spoken for him. Minor got back all his clothes, his books, his watercolours. And he was in regular receipt of his substantial pension. He even paid a fellow internee to do cleaning and other jobs for him.

That way Minor had leisure and security. He was well-housed and well-fed. And allowed to take walks whenever he wished. But then there was the intellectual isolation and the dark slough of imprisonment.

Early in 1880, a copy of Dr Murray’s appeal for volunteers for the new big dictionary reached Minor. He wrote back offering his services, giving his address simply as "Dr W.C. Minor of Crowthorne", He thought this activity would provide him the needed intellectual diversion. Soon the editors sent him an official acceptance.

Minor, otherwise a keen book reader, began ordering more and more books. Indeed his collection grew so large that he got bookshelves built into his cell walls, his study. And he embarked vigorously on his self-set task. Every day he would settled down to work, read his chosen book, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, with much measured care. Each time he found a word that piqued his interest, he wrote it down in tiny letters on a white sheet — with its exact spelling, its location, and page number in the source-book. By the time he finished a book, he would have drawn a neat list of such words in alphabetical order.

This unique manner of his procedure was soon to become a hallmark of Minor’s astonishing accuracy and eye for detail. His work would win the awe and admiration of all who saw it.

Day after day with rapt concentration, he would index and collect and collate words from his books, until his prison desk was heavy with quires of paper, each containing a master list of the indexed words from his valued little gem of the cell library. And then he started the practice of writing to the dictionary editors — Murray in particular — as to what letter or word was being worked upon. On receiving a reply, he would refer to his own index quires to see if he had noted down the wanted word — quite a likely occurrence, given his energetic reading for years — and go straight to the word’s appearance or appearances in one of his books. He would then transcribe the best sentence containing the word onto a readymade quotation slip and mail it to the Scriptorium.

In time, editors would simply decide on a word that was giving them problems, write to Crowthorne and ask for it. And they had every prospect of receiving a letter and package from Dr Minor, enclosing the quotation slip. For example, Dr Murray was once looking for quotes on the word "art". While other volunteers sent a quote or two, William Minor enclosed no fewer than 27.

By 1885, brown paper packets from Crowthorne were arriving at the Scriptorium every month, often every week. In all, Dr Minor sent some 10,000 quotation slips. Sometimes the editors found themselves overwhelmed by his meticulously observed and noted offerings.

At the Scriptorium editors, particularly Dr Murray, were puzzled as to who was this doctor at Crowthorne who had been contributing so greatly and brilliantly to their work for over 15 years. Why he never showed up at their place? He had even regretted his inability to attend the great dictionary dinner at Oxford on October 12, 1897.

Dr Murray could hold back his curiosity no longer; he decided to visit the doctor at Crawthorne, 50 miles away. Telegraphing his proposed time of arrival by train, he got a prompt reply he was welcome. A carriage waited at the station for the great man of letters. And then he was received in the main office room of a severe, stately building.

The person receiving him, however, turned out to be the Governor of Broadmmoor Asylum, William Minor. Soon Dr Minor was called in. Murray and Minor, both lovers of words, hit off well over a lunch with the Governor.

Murray made several trips to Crowthorne during subsequent years to meet his scholar-genius friend. He came to know from the Governor that Dr Minor had written a letter of regret and apology to the widow of George Merrett, the man he had mistakenly killed. And was assisting the widow with money, who kept visiting him in the prison.

Yet Dr Minor never recovered his sanity. His delusion of being attacked persisted, and so other symptoms of an unsound mind. With a change of the medical superintendent at Broadmoor, many of Minor’s perks got withdrawn. That made him more depressed and desperate. One morning he sliced off his penis, an inch from the root, possibly as a penance for his dissolute ways in youth.

Dr Murray, now a Sir, interceded with the authorities at the highest level to let William Minor go back to USA. He had been there for over thirty years. Minor’s family also came forward to stand guarantee for his safe custody and the American Embassy canvassed for him.

And still years would pass before Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, signed the release order in 1910.

Dr Murray and Lady Murray saw off their esteemed friend at the docks. In America, he was again sent to St Elizabeth, Washington. And only in 1919, the Army agreed to his release when he had become very infirm, almost blind. He died next year, peacefully in sleep at the age of 86.

Doctor W.C. Minor, certified insane, turned out to the second most prolific of the thousands of volunteer contributors whose labours lay at the core of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary. There are similar dictionaries in other languages but none greater, grander, or more authoritative than the OED. It’s said to be an unrivalled reference book: "The greatest effort since the invention of printing; the longest sensational serial ever written."