The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman


“The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” by Simon Winchester is a historical nonfiction book that unravels the fascinating story behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The book primarily revolves around two key figures: Professor James Murray, the editor tasked with compiling the OED, and Dr. William C. Minor, a contributor who turns out to be an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

The narrative explores how Professor Murray embarked on the monumental task of compiling the OED, enlisting the help of volunteers and contributors from around the English-speaking world. Dr. Minor, an American surgeon, becomes one of the most prolific and dedicated contributors to the dictionary. However, as their correspondence deepens, Professor Murray discovers the truth about Dr. Minor’s incarceration, leading to a poignant exploration of mental illness, crime, and the power of language. The book delves into the complexities of their relationship and the unlikely collaboration that played a pivotal role in the development of one of the most comprehensive dictionaries in the English language.

10 Key Takeaways from The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester:

  • Creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED): The book underscores the monumental task of creating the OED, one of the most comprehensive dictionaries in the English language. It required decades of effort and the contributions of numerous scholars and volunteers.
  • Professor James Murray’s Leadership: Professor James Murray’s leadership and vision were crucial in shaping the dictionary. He was responsible for coordinating the vast array of contributions and overseeing the project’s ambitious scope.
  • Contributors from Around the World: The book highlights the global nature of the OED project, with contributors from various countries. This diversity of input enriched the dictionary’s content.
  • Dr. William C. Minor’s Contribution: Dr. Minor’s remarkable contributions to the OED are a central focus. Despite his institutionalization, he played a pivotal role in providing quotations and definitions for thousands of words.
  • Mental Illness and Incarceration: The book delves into the tragic story of Dr. Minor’s mental illness and the circumstances that led to his incarceration. It raises questions about the treatment of mental illness in the 19th century.
  • Unlikely Collaboration: The unlikely collaboration between Professor Murray, a respected lexicographer, and Dr. Minor, a mentally ill prisoner, is a central theme. Their partnership illustrates the power of common interests and the human spirit.
  • Research Challenges: “The Professor and the Madman” highlights the immense research challenges faced by the OED’s creators, including sourcing examples of word usage from literature.
  • Language Evolution: It explores how the OED project reflects the evolution of the English language over time. The dictionary’s historical approach provides valuable insights into language changes.
  • Crime and Punishment: The book touches on themes of crime and punishment in the context of Dr. Minor’s life. It sheds light on the legal and medical practices of the era.
  • Impact and Legacy: The OED’s enduring impact on the English language and scholarship is evident. It continues to be a valuable resource for linguists, writers, and scholars worldwide.


“The Professor and the Madman” concludes with a poignant reflection on the remarkable collaboration between Professor James Murray and Dr. William C. Minor, despite their vastly different circumstances. The book underscores the profound impact of their work on the English language and lexicography. It also leaves readers contemplating the complexities of mental illness and the treatment of the mentally ill in the 19th century. Ultimately, it is a tribute to the enduring power of human connection, scholarship, and the pursuit of knowledge that transcends adversity.



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