William Chester Minor

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William Chester Minor
William Chester Minor.jpg
Born June 1834
Ceylon
Died March 26, 1920(1920-03-26) (aged 85)
New Haven, CT
Allegiance Union (United States)
Service/branch Union Army
Years of service 1863 or 1864–1871
Rank Commissioned officer (surgeon)
Battles/wars Battle of the Wilderness
Relations Thomas T. Minor, Seattle mayor
Other work Volunteer researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary

William Chester Minor, also known as W. C. Minor (June 1834 – March 26, 1920) was an American army surgeon and one of the largest contributors of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary. He was held in a lunatic asylum at the time.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Minor was born on the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the son of Congregationalist Church missionaries from New England. He had numerous half-siblings, among them Thomas T. Minor, mayor of Seattle, Washington, in the late 1880s.[1] At 14 he was sent to the United States. He subsequently attended Yale, completing a medical education in 1863.

Military career[edit]

He was accepted by the Union Army as a surgeon and served at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, which was notable for the terrible casualties suffered by both sides. Minor was also given the task of punishing an Irish soldier in the Union Army by branding him on the face with a D for "deserter"[2] and his nationality later played a role in Minor's dementia delusions.[2]

After the end of the American Civil War, Minor saw duty in New York City. He was strongly attracted to the red-light district of the city and devoted much of his off-duty time to going with prostitutes. By 1867, his behavior had come to the attention of the Army and he was transferred to a remote post in the Florida Panhandle. By 1868, his condition had progressed to the point that he was admitted to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a lunatic asylum in Washington, D.C. After eighteen months he showed no improvement.

Move to England[edit]

In 1871 he went to the UK, settling in the slum of Lambeth, in London, where once again he took up a dissolute life. Haunted by his paranoia, he fatally shot a man named George Merrett, who Minor believed had broken into his room, on February 17, 1872. Merrett had been on his way to work to support his family of six children, himself, and his pregnant wife, Eliza. After a pre-trial period spent in London's Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Minor was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in the asylum at Broadmoor in the village of Crowthorne, Berkshire. As he had his army pension and was not judged dangerous, he was given rather comfortable quarters and was able to buy and read books.[3][4]

Contributor to Oxford English Dictionary[edit]

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 (OED). He devoted most of the remainder of his life to that work.[5] He became one of the most effective volunteers, reading through his personal library and compiling quotations that illustrated the way particular words were used. He was visited quite often by the widow of the man he had killed, and she provided him with further books. The compilers of the dictionary published lists of words for which they wanted examples of usage. Minor provided these, with increasing ease as his lists grew. It was many years before the OED's editor, Dr. James Murray, learned Minor's background history, and visited him in January 1891. Minor got fame for being "second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall" in contributing to the OED.

Minor's condition deteriorated and in 1902 he cut off his own penis (autopeotomy).[6] His health failed and he was permitted to return to the United States and St. Elizabeths Hospital; he was subsequently diagnosed with dementia praecox. He died in 1920 in New Haven, Connecticut.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

The book The Surgeon of Crowthorne (published in America as The Professor and the Madman) by Simon Winchester, was published in 1998 and chronicles both Minor's later life and his contributions to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Winchester 1998, p. 47.
  2. ^ a b Winchester 1998, ch 3.
  3. ^ "Broadmoor Asylum", Asylums, UK: Institutions, archived from the original on 2010-04-17 .
  4. ^ "William Chester Minor" (PDF), Documents (biography), Berkshire, UK: Record office, archived from the original on 2009-11-28 .
  5. ^ "William Chester Minor", Contributors, Oxford English Dictionary .
  6. ^ Forsyth, Mark (November 2011), The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language .

Other sources[edit]

External links[edit]