The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman

A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Book - 1998
Average Rating:
Rate this:

A New York Times Notable Book * Now a Major Motion Picture

The Professor and the Madman is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary--and literary history.

The making of the OED was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, was stunned to discover that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. But their surprise would pale in comparison to what they were about to discover when the committee insisted on honoring him. For Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Masterfully researched and eloquently written, The Professor and the Madman "is the linguistic detective story of the decade." (William Safire, New York Times Magazine)

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Publisher: New York : HarperCollins Publishers, c1998
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780060839789
Branch Call Number: 423 WIN
Characteristics: 242 p. : ill. ; 22 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Oct 03, 2019

I picked up this book because of the movie starring Sean Penn and Mel Gibson. The subtitle intrigued me as well. Murder, Insanity and the Making of the OED.
But the book itself was a bit meandering. It didn't really focus on the professor or the madman.
There were chunks of the book that had nothing to do with either man. Some of the information in the book was fascinating, including how long it took everyone involved to sit down and begin making the dictionary. Or even how they began to find the words to add.

Both of the major characters were interesting in how they approached making the dictionary.
It was definitely an undertaking.
But to call the book the Professor and the Madman? They needed more information about them in the 20 odd years they worked on the dictionary together.

" But then he began to harbor suspicions about his fellow soldiers. He said he thought they were muttering about him, glancing suspiciously at him all the time. One officer in particular troubled Minor, began teasing him goading him, persecuting him in ways that Minor would never discuss. He challenged the man to a duel and had to be reprimanded by the fort commander. The officer was one of Minor's best friends, said the commander---and both he and the friend later said they were incredulous that they had fallen out so badly, for no obvious reason. . . . Minor appeared to have taken a leave of his senses. It was all very puzzling, and to his friends and family, deeply distressing." Seems reminiscent of both Poe and Dostoevsky. Otto Rank once turned his attention to this phenomenon.

patcumming Aug 09, 2018

I enjoyed the parts that described the methodology used to compile the OED. I had never really thought about what a Herculean effort it took. But the story about the professor and the madman was disappointing. Few facts, lots of speculation.

Mar 30, 2018

Interesting reading, especially about the OED. Agree with other readers who thought it was too "fluffed out" - the entire story could have been told in half the length or less. I was really put off by the author's suggestion (without a shred of supporting evidence) that there might have been an affair between the madman/murderer and the widow of the murdered man (after he was incarcerated in the asylum). This added nothing to the story and degraded the overall quality of the writing.

CRRL_MegRaymond Feb 21, 2018

The fascinating story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary also includes the story of a Civil War surgeon committed to Broadmoor, an English insane asylum.

Feb 05, 2018

Simply brilliant!!!!Simon Winchester weaves an true amazing tale, much like his other books.

Feb 02, 2018

This is being made into a movie starring Sean Penn and Mel Gibson

Nov 10, 2017

The story is interesting, but (sorry) it could have been told with much less fluff.

Aug 31, 2017

As a linear thinker, I greatly appreciated the detailed process that Dr. Murray set in motion to begin the immense task of creating a proper English dictionary. This became the revered and iconic Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Attempting such a daunting task in the 19th century required many, many readers and contributors to comb all English works to help define the word accurately in all its forms while determining when it was first used as well as including sentences showing usage. Murray placed ads with booksellers and one of those ads found its way to Dr. Minor in his asylum cell. Thus a decades-long relationship was born which benefited both men as well as the dictionary project.

As many nonfiction books show us, truth can absolutely be stranger than fiction. Winchester tells us the story in such a way that we appreciate both players while understanding the circumstances they were immersed in. Recommended!

Aug 30, 2017

This may be the most singularly nerdy book group book I've read, but it's also an enjoyable one. It blends what could easily be a sensational, lurid story with an obvious, fitting love of words, blended with a dose of compassion for the plight of the insane Dr. W.C. Minor. In the age of Wikipedia and crowdsourcing, it's mind-boggling to imagine the the analogue process of putting together such an exhaustive, enduring legacy as the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. A charming bit of narrative non-fiction.

View All Comments

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability

There are no age suitabilities for this title yet.


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number

Subject Headings


Find it at RPL

To Top