And. . . we’re back to the crazy
Having finished a readable draft of an article I desperately hope to get published soon, I have torn through a short little tome on my summer reading list. The Professor and the Madman is a brief and intriguing little tale of Dr. William C. Minor, an American surgeon who contributed literally thousands of quotations in support of the historical research that went into the first edition of the OED.
Dr. Minor had a tidy little library of 17th and 18th century rarities and he combed through them, using a unique notation and indexing system that allowed him to quickly get to useful quotations and first appearances in English of the words that the OED staff were working on. He evidently contributed tens of thousands of items to the dictionary and is thanked in the original edition.
The location of this man and his prodigious library? A lunatic asylum for the criminally insane. Turns out that the esteemed Dr. Minor, Yale grad, army captain, respected gentlemen of Christian upbringing, had gone off his rocker some time in his thirties (though maybe earlier) and was (as an early-twentieth-century doctor diagnosed him) certifiably schizo. Poor guy. He was convinced that urchins and miscreants sneaked into his quarters at night and either did unspeakable things to him, or made him do unspeakable things. These nightly break-ins generally involved him being transported to faraway places and being “made into a pimp” and being forced to engage in awful, sexually depraved acts with girls.
One night, convinced again he was being set upon by evildoers, he fled his apartment in Lambeth, London (where he had gone to recover a bit of the senses that had gone missing back in America) and shot a man dead. Oops. Wrong guy.
Ok. So I’m trying to relay this tale to Dale in the car today. And I say: We have an American Army surgeon with Civil War duty under his belt. He has . . .er. . . voracious and scandalous sexual appetites and is perhaps a little off kilter. His service in the Civil War leaves him a bit unhinged. Then, after he’s locked up for murder and begins collaborating on the OED, he undergoes a sort of religious conversion. He comes to see his compulsive masturbation as not just a part of his illness, but as something vile and disgusting in the eyes of the Lord.
Dale interjects: So he cuts his penis off?
I would like to note: I had not mentioned knives, penises, bobbing (or Bobbitting) . Dale heard “vile and disgusting” and just Assumed that this lunatic would cut off his penis. Boys.
At any rate. Dr. Minor did, indeed, cut off his penis. How does a crazy person, locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane, get his hands on an implement that can cut off an organ??? Well, as a wealthy and not very criminally inclined crazy person, Dr. Minor was granted permission to have a pen knife in his room to cut pages of books he ordered up from London for his word work.
Poor guy. Being a surgeon, he did a good job of it and left an 1″ stump through which he could urinate but which offered limited manual access. Mission evidently accomplished.
After two decades of work with the OED editors, Dr. Minor’s mental state became increasingly fragile and his body began to show the signs of advancing age. The British authorities, the young Winston Churchill among them, granted his family permission to take Dr. Minor home to a mental hospital in America to live out his days. He died a year after returning to American soil.
The author, Simon Winchester, tells a good tale and is compassionate with his subject material. He goes to great lengths to point out that madness is not always an absolute state. Dr. Minor, during the day at least, appeared and behaved relatively sane. He was passionately interested in books and reading and in the work of the OED. He speculates that Dr. Minor might have had a more productive and happy life in our era of pharmaceutical enlightenment, his torments held in check, Dr. Minor would have likely had a successful career as a military surgeon. But then, would he have had the time and the passion to work so diligently scouring old books for new and unusual uses of English words, thereby enriching our own experience of our language? Perhaps not.