The Surgeon of Crowthorne

Simon Winchester

Introduced by Will Self

A tale of murder, madness and a truly remarkable partnership, this edition of Winchester’s highly acclaimed work features previously unpublished watercolours and an illuminating introduction by Will Self.

Published price: US$ 49.95


The Surgeon of Crowthorne

‘One of the most amazing stories of modern scholarship. Wonderful’

This is a story that is sad, uplifting and strange; a story of murder, madness and extraordinary achievement, revealing what is surely one of the most singular partnerships in the history of human endeavour. Simon Winchester’s captivating book – known in the US as The Professor and the Madman – recounts the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), whose existence we largely owe to the Scottish polymath James Murray. But Murray might not have succeeded without the assistance of the other protagonist in this curious tale: American murderer and Broadmoor inmate, Dr William C. Minor.

Production Details

The Surgeon of Crowthorne book
  • Bound in buckram, blocked with a design by Tim Laing
  • Set in Sabon
  • 232 pages; frontispiece and 12 pages of colour and black & white plates
  • Printed endpapers
  • 9½" x 6¼"

A curious tale

The 12-volume first edition of the OED was completed in 1928. For more than half of its 70-year development, Murray had been principal editor. At the heart of his approach was the use of quotations to illustrate evolving word definitions, a gargantuan task which in turn depended on a network of volunteer ‘lexical detectives’. Here Murray’s life became intertwined with that of Minor, the man behind the murder dubbed the ‘Lambeth Tragedy’. Minor was a former assistant surgeon in the US Army – sensitive, educated and artistic, but tormented by paranoid delusions. The courts swiftly deemed him a ‘Certified Criminal Lunatic’ and sent him to Broadmoor, the ‘newly built showpiece of the British penal system’. As a result of this grievous affair, Minor became one of the most prolific contributors to the OED.

In his superb introduction, Will Self considers the political and cultural significance of Murray’s venture. The images in this edition were obtained with the help of Minor’s descendants, and feature three of his previously unpublished watercolours, two of which he produced at Broadmoor. The binding design depicts Minor at work in his cell, while the endpapers give examples of the intricate word-lists he created.

Simon Winchester on William Chester Minor’s watercolours

What best might soothe the savage breast of one so floridly insane as W. C. Minor? Music, offered Congreve, three centuries ago: and it is true, poor Dr Minor did indeed take his violin with him to the asylum cells in Broadmoor, and played melodies that helped him through the more dreadful night-times of his madness. Daytime work on the dictionary, too, undoubtedly helped. His paranoia must have been calmed by the hours of patient, painstaking work that he undertook, assembling the quotations for James Murray’s immense compendium of the English language, and which would make him so notable a figure in lexicographic history.

Broadmoor Asylum entrance gate, 1908. (Copyright The Francis Frith Collection)

Modern psychiatrists would have prescribed antischizoid drugs for him. But their sedative effects surely would have dulled his philological passions. Unkindly, it might be said that it was as well for lexicography that Minor went mad when he did, before today’s available pharmacopoeia, with all of its chemical distractions, was fully in place. But painting was the soothing medicine that perhaps made him most tranquil of all. Quite probably he learned its basics as a child in Ceylon, where his missionary-mother, like most memsahibs of the day, would have taken to watercolours to record and memorialise the local temples and teashops. When first he went to London after being cashiered from the US Army on grounds of ill health, Minor took his box of paints and brushes in his carpetbag, together with an introduction to tea with John Ruskin, his parents’ friend. He never made contact with the master watercolourist, though. Instead, using the service revolver he had packed alongside his paint box, he committed his infamous murder.

For much of Minor’s subsequent four decades of residence at Broadmoor he, like most inmates, was allowed to indulge his harmless pursuits, especially if they were considered therapeutic. Other contemporaries did likewise: best-known of all was the parricide Richard Dadd, who took nine years to complete one much-celebrated work in oils. Minor’s paintings, of which some dozens survive, are lesser and less complex works – in truth somewhat slight and gentle creations. But they are valued today, now that we know Minor’s full story, as testament to the essential human goodness that can be found, buried deep within a terribly tortured mind.

Click here to read a blog post by Picture Editor Laura Canter on finding Minor’s watercolours.

Definitions and delusions

That great works of poetry should produce such feeling is a given – prose works of high style as well; but I believe it less commonly appreciated that there is this subset of ostensibly factual works – a subset to which The Surgeon of Crowthorne very definitely belongs – that can also do this most magnificent trick. James Murray’s word definitions were known for their ferocious lucidity, while William Minor was a man wracked by delusions, who sourced from the great compass of English literature copious quotations to establish the semantic shifts of those selfsame definitions. Murray set it down as an axiom that no dictionary should include a word that it did not also define; I would hazard that it is the chance encounter between these two personifications of meaning – the one frighteningly lucid, the other terrifyingly ebullient – on the pages of this book, that produces such a surrealistic impression. I said that Winchester’s encounter with Green’s account of Murray and Minor was serendipitous – my encounter with his book was equally so, as is yours; and if you’re curious as to the etymology of the word ‘serendipity’ then read on, because soon enough you’ll find it out. ‘Encounter’ I expect you’re familiar with already.
An extract from Will Self's introduction


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Review by pedro7 on 14th Sep 2014

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"Have just finished reading this and have to say,its wonderful.The story is so readable and interesting and I read the whole book in just 3 sittings.For a factual book it reads like a novel and the sto..." [read more]

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