The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
Reviewed by Moira McAlister December 2020
I don’t know how I missed this book when it was published in the 1990’s – probably I was knee deep in children’s literature at the time – but what an interesting story it is. It concerns the production of the multi (twelve, I think) volumed publication of the first Oxford English Dictionary in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Oh! I hear you say, doesn’t sound that interesting! But wait until you hear the details. Dr Murray was in charge of the project and advertised for volunteers to contribute examples of words from an incredibly ambitious range of existing works- words in action, so to speak.
One of his contributors was exceptionally prolific and punctual and after (I think) seventeen years of contributions Dr Murray desired to meet the dedicated and productive Dr William Chester Minor. An invitation was issued and politely refused- he was not able to travel- which led Dr Murray to suggest that he himself could make the short (sixty mile by train) journey from Oxford to the village of Crowthorne, near Broadmoor, Berkshire.
What he found was that Dr Minor was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum for the criminally insane, having been convicted of the murder of George Merrett, a random east end worker, whom he shot dead believing that he was trying to kill Minor.
Now the story gets interesting. Minor’s mental illness seems to stem from his days in the Union Army fighting during the American Civil War – well, not fighting, but as a doctor, cleaning up after the fighting. This quote describes the times as I have never heard it before.
‘The fact is that this war was fought with new and highly effective weapons for the mowing down of men, but at a time when an era of poor and primitive medicine was just coming to an end. It was fought with the mortar, the musket and the Minie ball, though not with anaesthesia and sulphonamides and penicillin. The common soldier was thus in a poorer position than at any time before or after; he could be monstrously mistreated by all the new weaponry and yet only moderately well treated with all the old medicine.’ (p44).
Added to this was the Army’s insistence that deserters be punished and it is thought that much of Minor’s insanity stems from being forced, as the medical attendant, to ‘brand’ the letter D (for deserter) on the cheeks of the (mainly Irish) soldiers who deserted. One of the hallmarks of his insanity was his belief that Irish people were trying to kill him. Little wonder, poor man.
So, back to the Dictionary. Minor was a man of education and finer tastes- he liked to read, painted very well with watercolours and enjoyed academic interactions. When he was incarcerated in Broadmoor, he proved himself a model inmate, and one of independent means- the American Army was paying him a generous pension. So, not only was he able to surround himself with the vast library he needed for his work on the Dictionary, he was able to put the funds to other uses.
He made contact with George Merrett’s widow, Eliza, mother of their seven children and supported the family financially. They (Dr Minor and Eliza) became friends and she visited Broadmoor regularly, often bringing his book orders from London.
The film ‘The Professor and the Madman’ starring Mel Gibson as Dr Murray and Sean Penn as Dr Minor, has the Eliza-Dr Minor relationship as a love affair, and Simon Winchester himself hints of this towards the end of the book when he describes the self- mutilation of Dr Minor as a regret for his sexual feeling or activity with Eliza. He also says that Eliza took to drink and that the relationship was short lived, though whether one caused the other is not stated.
So, instead of a dull account of the production of the first Oxford English Dictionary we have murder, insanity, sexual deviance, war and war crimes, incarceration, loneliness and romance, but all eclipsed by the intellectual relationship of two men with the common goal of the love of words and the search for the perfect definition.
I thought there were many places in the book where editing would have helped. It seemed there were many repetitions. Perhaps the overall structure could have been streamlined so that the same information was not repeated. But apart from that, it was a fabulous story, another example of fact being stranger than fiction.