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William Chester Minor

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William Chester Minor (W. C. Minor, June 1834 - March 26, 1920) was born on the island of Ceylon, the son of Congregationalist Church missionaries from New England. He is known to have been fascinated as a teenager by the young Ceylonese girls and to have had lascivious thoughts which plagued his conscience. At 14 he was sent back to the United States by steamship, finishing his education as a surgeon at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut in 1863.

He was accepted by the Union Army as a surgeon and saw service at the Battle of the Wilderness in May, 1864. This was a battle that was notable for the horrible casualties suffered. He was ordered as a surgeon to brand an Irish deserter, a member of the Fenian Brotherhood, on the face. Paranoid delusions about the Fenians, Irish revolutionaries, were part of his later madness.

After the end of the American Civil War Minor saw duty in New York City. He was strongly attracted to the fleshpots of the city and devoted much of his off-duty time spending time with prostitutes. By 1867, his bizarre behavior had come to the attention of the Army and he was transferred to a remote post in the Florida Panhandle. By 1868 his disease had progressed to the point that he was admitted to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a lunatic asylum in Washington, DC. After eighteen months he showed no improvement. He was allowed to resign his commission and take retirement pay.

In 1871 he went to London, England settling in the slum of Lambeth[?] where once again he took up a dissolute life. Haunted by his paranoia he shot a man he believed had broken into his room. He was judged innocent by reason of insanity and incarcerated in the aslyum at Broadmoor[?] in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire. As he had his army pension and was not judged dangerous, he was given rather nice quarters and was able to buy and read books.

It was probably through his correspondence with the London booksellers that he heard of the call for volunteers from what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary. He devoted the remainder of his life to that work.

He was one of the most effective of the volunteers, systematically reading through his library, and compiling lists of the occurrence of words. He kept current with the words needed in the volume currently being worked on, and as his lists grew was able to supply quotations on demand for a particular word. Eventually he became well acquainted with the editor of the OED, Dr. James Murray, who visited him at the asylum and befriended him. In time Minor's condition grew worse; his health failed and he was permitted to return to the United States and St. Elizabeth's. Psychiatry had progressed in the meantime and Dr. Minor was diagnosed as suffering from dementia praecox or schizophrenia. He died in 1920 in New Haven, Connecticut.

See also

Further Reading

  • The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester, HarperPerennial, New York, 1998, trade paperback, ISBN 0-06-017596-6. (Note that the British edition has the title "The Surgeon of Crowthorne".)

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