Saturday, 9 June 2012

Major Work by Dr Minor

                                      In common with Johnson’s Dictionary, the committee of the New English Dictionary (what would become the Oxford English Dictionary), decided to include quotations illustrating the various usages of each particular headword. The enormity of this undertaking required legions of volunteer readers, who submitted their researches on slips of paper to the editor of the Dictionary. Sir James Murray had built a ‘scriptorium’ in which the slips of paper were placed into pigeonholes, waiting for their turn to be used. 

Sir James Murray in the Scriptorium

In the September 1879 edition of the Athenaeum magazine, Murray wrote that it would be useful to his researches if more American readers would volunteer. His appeal brought in about 800 letters, including one from a Dr W C Minor, of Crowthorne, Berkshire. In due course, Dr Minor received a letter from Murray saying that, on the basis of his qualifications, interests and enthusiasm, he would be welcome as a volunteer reader; Murray also included two closely printed sheets of instructions on how the work was to be undertaken. 

Dr W C Minor in his Study

Minor set to work in his personal library, but unlike other volunteers, he worked methodically through each individual volume, noting in alphabetical order each interesting or unusual word he encountered into small, eight page notebooks he had made from sheets of notepaper. For the next five years Minor worked his way through his books, producing dozens of notebooks filled with alphabetical lists of words in his tiny, meticulous handwriting. In 1884 he wrote to Murray, asking which particular words were the dictionary staff were working on at that time, and when Murray replied, Minor was able to consult his notebooks and immediately come up with examples of each usage. 

One of Dr Minor's slips sent to Sir James Murray

In this way, he was one step ahead of the lexicographers, and his work was to prove invaluable. Dr W C Minor was mentioned in the list of valuable contributors listed at the front of the volumes of the dictionary. 

Acknowledgement of Minor's contribution in the Preface to the OED

In the May 1896 edition of the Athenaeum, Murray, in a report of the proceedings of the Philological Society, specifically mentioned the 'great work done' by Dr W C Minor. 

From the Athenaeum May 2nd 1896, mentioning Minor's contribution

But all was not as it seemed with Dr W C Minor. 

William Chester Minor had been born in June 1834 on the island of Ceylon, where his family were American Congregationalist missionaries. In 1848, the young Minor was sent back to America to study; he attended Yale University and eventually graduated with a degree and specialization in comparative anatomy in 1863. The bookish, flute-playing, water-colour-painting Dr Minor became an army doctor in the Union Army, in the middle of the Civil War. In 1864, he was in Virginia, where old-style medicine was struggling to treat new-style mechanised warfare. Men were being slaughtered by musket, mortar and Minié ball, in the days before anaesthesia, antibiotics and penicillin. Field hospitals were filled with gangrene, amputations and filth, where men died in agony from their suppurating wounds. The sensitive Dr Minor went into this hell in Virginia’s Orange County, in the two-day mayhem of the Battle of the Wilderness, one of the bloodiest encounters in a very bloody war. 

The Battle of the Wilderness 1864

Unsurprisingly, Army discipline began to break down when soldiers, faced with almost certain death on the battlefield, began to desert (over 5,000 in May 1864 alone). Punishments were harsh and inventive; men were flogged, fined or shot. They were gagged with bayonets, hanged by their thumbs, and made to carry a yard of rail. And men were branded with the letter ‘D’ for ‘deserter’. On the face. Dr Minor was ordered, as army doctor, to brand a young Irish deserter in such a manner. Much, much later, it was reported that this act “… drove him mad.” 

Title Page - Post Mortem Examinations by Dr W C Minor 1864

Soon afterwards he was transferred, but the astonishing promise he had shown (“one of the best half dozen in the country”) disappeared; he began to drink heavily and frequent brothels. He carried a revolver with him everywhere, convinced that he was about to be attacked, particularly by Irishmen bent on revenge. He contracted venereal infections, challenged an army officer to a duel, and generally acted contrary to his former temperament. Eventually, he was committed to an asylum and ‘Retired’ from the Army, with a pension for life. In 1871, he left for a health-cure in Europe, and arrived in London in November. His delusions never left him – he was convinced that Irishmen were following him, that they broke into his lodgings when he slept, and stole his belongings. 

In the early morning of February 17th 1872, George Merrit, father of six and with a pregnant wife at home, was on his way to work on the dawn shift at the Red Lion Brewery, when he was confronted by Dr Minor, who began to shout at him. Merrit turned and ran, but Minor drew his revolver and opened fire. Three or four shots rang out, one hit Merrit in the neck, shattering his spine and killing him. Minor stood and waited for the police to arrive, he admitted to the crime and was arrested. At his trial, guided by the McNaughton Rules, the jury found Minor ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ and on April 6th 1872, the judge ordered him to be detained in safe custody ‘… until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known”; on April 17th he was admitted, as Patient 742, to Broadmoor Hospital, Crowthorne, Berkshire. As a well-born, well-educated Doctor and former Army officer, with a regular pension, he was assigned two rooms in Block 2, one of which became his library. He filled the room with books, and strangely, he contacted Eliza, Merrit’s widow, who visited him regularly and brought him books on request from London, and on whom he settled an income. It is highly likely that it was in one of these books that he found one of Murray’s requests for volunteer readers. 

Dr W C Minor in later life

It is entirely reasonable to assume that Murray saw the address of Broadmoor Hospital and thought Dr Minor was employed there, as nothing indicated that he was actually an inmate. Eventually the truth came out, and Murray made many visits to Crowthorne, where he met Minor regularly, dined and talked at length with him. The two men became firm friends, although Murray would telegraph the Governor of Broadmoor before his visits, to ascertain the mood of Minor, and would cancel his trip if the Doctor was in ill spirits. As for Minor, he seems to have thrived from the contact and attention, and it was noted that his mood had lifted noticeably. 

But the paranoia continued, and delusions crowded in on poor Dr Minor; on December 3rd 1902, he took the penknife he used for cutting the unfinished pages of his first editions, and after tying a tourniquet around the base of his penis, he cut the organ off and threw into the fire. When asked why, he replied he had done it “… in the interests of Morality”; he had previously claimed he was being taken from his cell and was forced to fornicate with 150 women a night, “… from Reading to Land’s End.” From then on, and with advancing age, his physical health declined and in 1910, under his brother’s recognizance, he returned to America, where he entered St Elizabeth’s Asylum, Washington D C, and continued to correspond with Murray, until the latter’s death in 1915. 

The tombstone of Dr W C Minor

In 1919, Minor moved, at his nephew’s request, to Hartford, Connecticut, where, blind, toothless and with failing memory, he died from bronchiopneumonia, on March 26th 1920, aged eighty-five years and nine months. It would be another eight years before the OED was finally completed.

The whole, fascinating story can be read in far greater detail in Simon Winchester’s marvellous The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which I cannot recommend highly enough.



  1. I agree with you, a fascinating story and one told in typically able fashion by Mr Winchester. I only wish that the last part, wherein he states the memorials to Dr Minor and the man he killed, are both rather inadequate, could somehow be rectified.

  2. Hello, thank you for your kind comment.
    As to the memorial question, I must admit that I'm in two minds - I'm not a big fan of statues to the great and the good and so on but then again credit where it's due. Maybe, and this sounds trite and I'd don't mean it in that way, is that the true memorial to messers Minor and Merrit lies in the OED itself. It's that St Paul's Cathedral and Christopher Wren thing - 'if you seek a monument, look about yourself' (I'm paraphrasing). It's inadequate but I do hope that you can see my point. As a reader of dictionaries, I sometimes wonder just what it is that I'm reading comes from Dr Minor's submissions. Thank you again for your interest, if you can find the time please return and I hope you find something that interests you.