William Chester Minor and the Oxford English Dictionary

William Chester Minor was born in Ceylon in 1834, the son of a missionary family. The chronic insanity which was to define his life became apparent in his early adulthood. His formative years seem to have been troubled solely by an excessive interest in young Indian girls which prompted his pious parents them to send him away from Ceylon to a school in New Haven, Connecticut. He then entered Yale University and attended medical school. He graduated as a surgeon. In 1863 Minor joined the Union army as an assistant surgeon, holding the rank of lieutenant. He spent six months attending to civil war casualties at hospitals in New England before, in May 1864, being sent to the front line. The trauma of the battlefield triggered his mental deterioration.

In 1871, Minor was compelled by his breakdown to leave the army, and was sent by his family to convalesce in London. He settled in Lambeth. Mental illness overwhelmed him once more. In February 1872, he shot and killed a man named George Merrett. He gave himself up to the police, and was sentenced to be confined in the newly opened Broadmoor Asylum. There he came across the famous ‘Appeal for volunteer readers’ that had been sent out by James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in which interested members of the reading public were requested to scour published literature for quotations to illustrate the use of English words. By the mid-1880s Minor was sending thousands slips of paper with quotations to the Oxford team. For many years Murray had no idea that his correspondent was a lunatic and a murderer.

When Murray did learn of the curious circumstances of Minor’s life, he visited him at the asylum. The two men became friends, united by their passion for the English language. However, Minor became ever more unwell with age. In 1902, in a fit of delusional guilt, he amputated his penis in the belief it might curb his troublesome sexual appetite. The autopeotomy severely debilitated him. It prompted Home Secretary Winston Churchill, at Murray’s request, to release and deport Minor. After an emotional farewell from the Murray family, he sailed back to New York in 1910. He carried the first six completed volumes of the O.E.D. with him. He died ten years later.