The Surgeon of Crowthorne

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester is a well-written book about Dr W C Minor, a mad murdering ex-US army surgeon who contributed substantially to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and his relationship with James Murray, the primary editor of the dictionary from 1879 to 1915.

Minor was born in Sri Lanka to missionaries and then returned to the US. He went to Yale and then joined the Union in the US Civil War. During this time he saw things that may have driven him mad. He was discharged from the Army after serving time in a US military asylum. He went to England where he shot an Englishman. He was tried but was found to be insane. He was then incarcerated in the Broadmoor Asylum. There he was well treated and read extensively.

While in Broadmoor Minor learned of the OED project that was to be a comprehensive large dictionary of the English language that had examples of usage for as many words as could be found. The OED was one of a number of large dictionary projects started across Europe to be as comprehensive as possible. James Murray, a largely self made academic had become the first successful editor of the project. The project involved soliciting assistance from a large number of people to find the earliest uses and typical uses of words. This is an early effective use of crowdsourcing.

Minor, who had much leisure time and wealth to buy books provided great service for the dictionary. He also communicated with Murray, who for some time was unaware that Minor was mad. The two men became good friends with Murray visiting Minor a number of times.

The book is a good story about an interesting character that provides something of a view onto a truly huge undertaking, that of writing the OED. It’s a good, fun read.



One response to “The Surgeon of Crowthorne

  1. Pingback: Atlantic | ReviewSien

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