The Surgeon of Crowthorne – Simon Winchester

October 29, 2009 at 22:21 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I’ve just finished ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, an account of how an American military surgeon, Dr W C Minor, afflicted by what is now believed to be schizophrenia triggered by his experiences in the American Civil War, shot dead an innocent man in London and then spent most of his life in Broadmoor Asylum.

It is also the story of the Oxford English Dictionary; a project of huge ambition borne in the Victorian era where bewhiskered men built railways, sewers, street lighting and telegraph networks – indeed much of what we now take for granted as ‘civilisation’. In such an environment, surely a simple dictionary, even one as all-encompassing as the OED, could be completed in a reasonable time.

As it was, it took seventy years. And for many of those decades it was overseen by its irrepressible editor, James Murray, a brilliant (and suitably bewhiskered) linguist who led the project with an iron discipline corralling a small army of volunteers to work on different words in perhaps the first ever example of distributed content creation.

The lives of the two men – Murray and Minor – became linked when Minor became a tireless contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, compiling quotes and sources from his Broadmoor room. It’s a story of eccentricity and organisation, friendship and separation, madness and genius. It’s a fun read that rattles along like a good yarn.

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