One of the most valuable contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary was a lunatic. This is known to everybody, but the details are not known.
Perhaps more to the point, the story as it was widely disseminated for many years is romanticized and essentially false.
Simon Winchester's The Surgeon of Crowthorne begins with that romantic falsehood, then fills in the truth behind it.
The lunatic in question was an American surgeon, Dr. W. C. Minor, who went mad during, and perhaps as a consequence of, his service in the American Civil War, committed a murder in London, and was confined to Broadmoor "until Her Majesty's pleasure be known," a rather nice legal phrasing for "indefinitely, but probably a very long time."
In that asylum, he had books and time, and not much else. The advertisement by the editors of what was to become the OED, for readers to submit quotations illustrating the use of English words, came as a welcome lifeline, a chance to do something useful and have some contact with the world beyond the prison walls.
Winchester has combined a biography of an obscure lunatic with a biography of the man who really deserves, and gets, credit for the OED, James Murray, its editor, who devoted his life to the project. This book is also a history of the OED, of earlier dictionaries of the English language, and of changing attitudes toward mental illness.
Penguin, London, 1998, ISBN 0-14-027128-7.
The Book picks of the past are still available.
You might also want to take a look at the One Book List. The compiler has asked anyone and everyone to recommend one book, and say a bit about why they chose it. The list isn't perfect--there's a definite bias toward recent material, and toward science fiction--but there's still a lot of variety there, and only a few books that I'm sure don't belong.
Last modified 28 August 1999; copyright 1999 Vicki Rosenzweig.
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