William Chester Minor: Wikis


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William Chester Minor, also known as W. C. Minors (June 1834 – March 26, 1920) was an American surgeon who made many scholarly contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary while confined to a lunatic asylum.


Early life

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 back to the United States by steamship, finishing his education as a surgeon at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut in 1863.

Military career

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. Minor was also given the task of punishing fugitive soldiers by branding them with a D for "deserter". Some of these men were Irish immigrants, which would later play a role in Minor's dementia delusions.

After the end of the American Civil War Minor saw duty in New York City. He was strongly attracted to the fleshpots 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. He was allowed to resign his commission and take retirement pay.[2]


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]

Later life and OED contributions

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.[4]

He proved to be one of the most effective of the volunteers, systematically reading through his library, and compiling lists of the occurrence of words. These he kept current with the words needed in the volume being worked on at the time. As his lists grew, he was able to supply quotations on demand for a particular word. Eventually he became well acquainted with the editor of the OED, Dr. James Murray, who visited him at the asylum and befriended him.

Minor's condition deteriorated and in 1902 he cut off his own penis. His health failed and he was permitted to return to the United States and St. Elizabeths Hospital. The science of psychiatry had progressed in the meantime and Dr. Minor was diagnosed as suffering from dementia praecox or schizophrenia. He died in 1920 in New Haven, Connecticut.



  • Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, HarperPerennial, New York, 1998, hardback and trade paperback, ISBN 0-06-017596-6. OCLC 38425992 (Original British edition has the title The Surgeon of Crowthorne, ISBN 0-14-027128-7. OCLC 42083202)
  • Aurandt, Paul (1984). "14. Pen Pals". Paul Harvey's the Rest of the Story. London: Bantam. pp. 31–33t. ISBN 0553259628.  

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