William Chester Minor

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William Chester Minor
Dr. William Chester Minor.jpg
Dr. William Chester Minor
BornJune 22, 1834
DiedMarch 26, 1920(1920-03-26) (aged 85)
Alma mater Yale University
Known forContributions to the Oxford English Dictionary
Relatives Thomas T. Minor, Mayor of Seattle (half-brother)
Military career
Allegiance Union (United States)
Service/branch Union Army
Years of service1863/1864 to 1871
RankCommissioned officer (surgeon)
Battles/wars Battle of the Wilderness

William Chester Minor, also known as W. C. Minor (June 22, 1834 – March 26, 1920) was an American army surgeon and one of the largest contributors of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary . [1] He was also held in a psychiatric hospital from 1872 to 1910 after he murdered George Merrett.



Early life

Minor was born on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the son of Eastman Strong Minor, and his first wife Lucy Bailey, Congregationalist Church missionaries from New England. He had numerous half-siblings, among them Thomas T. Minor, mayor of Seattle, Washington. [2] At 14 he was sent to the United States, where he lived with relatives in New Haven while attending the Russell Military Academy. He subsequently enrolled in Yale Medical School, supporting himself during his years as a medical student with part-time employment as an instructor at the Russell academy and as an assistant on the 1864 revision of Webster's dictionary, [3] then in preparation at Yale under the supervision of Noah Porter. Minor graduated in 1863 with a medical degree and a specialization in comparative anatomy. After a brief stint at Knight General Hospital in New Haven he joined the Union army.

Military career

He was accepted by the Union army as a surgeon and may have served at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, which was notable for the terrible casualties suffered by both sides. There is an unverified story of Minor also being given the task of punishing an Irish soldier in the Union Army by branding him on the face with a D for "deserter" [4] and that this incident later played a role in Minor's delusions. [4]

There is disagreement whether the Union army used branding as a punishment for desertion. [5] [6] This means that the story that Minor branded a deserter may be apocryphal. Moreover, it is unlikely Minor was present at the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–7, 1864. Minor's military records place him at Knight USA Hospital in New Haven and do not show him arriving at 2 Division Hospital USA at Alexandria, VA, until May 17, 1864. [7]

After the end of the U.S. Civil War, Minor saw duty in New York City. He was strongly attracted to the red-light district of the city and devoted much of his off-duty time to going with prostitutes. By 1867, his behavior had come to the attention of the Army and he was transferred to a remote post in the Florida Panhandle. By 1868, his condition had progressed to the point that he was admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a lunatic asylum (as mental hospitals were then called) in Washington, D.C. After eighteen months he showed no improvement.

Move to England and conviction for murder

The "Lion Brewery" where Dr. Minor shot George Merrett. Picture of the Lion Brewery.jpg
The "Lion Brewery" where Dr. Minor shot George Merrett.

In 1871 he went to London for a change of place to help his mental condition, settling in the slum of Lambeth, where once again he took up a dissolute life. Haunted by his paranoia, he fatally shot a man named George Merrett, who Minor believed had broken into his room, on February 17, 1872. Merrett had been on his way to work to support his family of six children, himself, and his pregnant wife, Eliza. After a pre-trial period spent in London's Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Minor was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in the asylum at Broadmoor in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire. As he had his US army pension and was not judged dangerous, he was given rather comfortable quarters and was able to buy and read books. [8] [9]

Contributor to Oxford English Dictionary

It was probably through his correspondence with the London booksellers that he heard of the call for volunteers for what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). He devoted most of the remainder of his life to that work. [10] He became one of the project's most effective volunteers, reading through his large personal library of antiquarian books and compiling quotations that illustrated the way particular words were used. He was often visited by the widow of the man he had killed, and she provided him with further books. The compilers of the dictionary published lists of words for which they wanted examples of usage. Minor provided these, with increasing ease as the lists grew. It was many years before the OED's editor, Dr. James Murray, learned Minor's background history, and visited him in January 1891. In 1899 Murray paid compliment to Minor's enormous contributions to the dictionary, stating, "we could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone." [11] [12]

Minor's condition deteriorated and in 1902, due to delusions that he was being abducted nightly from his rooms and conveyed to places as far away as Istanbul, and forced to commit sexual assaults on children, he cut off his own penis (autopenectomy) using a knife he had employed in his work on the dictionary. [13] His health continued to worsen, and after Murray campaigned on his behalf, Minor was released in 1910 on the orders of Home Secretary Winston Churchill. [13] He was deported back to the United States and resided at St. Elizabeths Hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He died in 1920 in Hartford, Connecticut, after being moved in 1919 to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane there. [14]

The book The Surgeon of Crowthorne (published in America as The Professor and the Madman), by Simon Winchester, was published in 1998 and chronicles both Minor's later life and his contributions to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary . The movie rights for the book were bought by Mel Gibson's Icon Productions in 1998. [15] In August 2016 it was announced that Farhad Safinia was to direct an adaptation, called The Professor and the Madman , starring Gibson as Murray and Sean Penn as Minor. [16] The film was released in May 2019.

Minor's life was also detailed in an episode of Drunk History . He was portrayed by Bob Odenkirk.

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  1. Winchester, Simon (1998). The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (hardback ed.). US: Harper Collins. ISBN   978-0-06-017596-2.
  2. Winchester 1998, p. 47.
  3. Kendall, Joshua. "A Minor Exception", The Nation, April 4, 2011.
  4. 1 2 Winchester 1998, ch 3.
  5. Weitz, Mark (April 2012). "Desertion, Cowardice and Punishment" . Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  6. "Deserters in the Civil War" . Retrieved August 9, 2019.
  7. William C. Minor, Acting Assistant Surgeon, USA, Hospital Muster Roll, 2 & 3 Divisions U.S.A General Hospital and Returns, Veterans Records, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  8. "Broadmoor Asylum", Asylums, UK: Institutions, archived from the original on April 17, 2010.
  9. "William Chester Minor", Documents (PDF) (biography), Berkshire, UK: Record office, archived from the original (PDF) on November 28, 2009.
  10. "William Chester Minor", Contributors, Oxford English Dictionary.
  11. Winchester, Simon (2004). The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. OUP. p. 201.
  12. Murray, Katharine Maud Elisabeth (2001). Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. Yale University Press. p. 306.

    In 1899 alone, Minor provided 12,000 quotations for the OED.

  13. 1 2 Forsyth, Mark (November 2011), The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
  14. Winchester, Simon. "Minor, William Chester". ODNB .
  15. Mel Gussow (December 4, 2006). "The Strange Case of the Madman With a Quotation for Every Word". The New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2010.
  16. Tatiana Siegel (February 21, 2005). "Mel Gibson, Sean Penn to Star in 'Professor and the Madman' (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter . Retrieved August 2, 2016.

Other sources

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