ONE of the greatest contributors to the first Oxford English Dictionary was also one of its most unusual. In 1879, Oxford University in England asked Prof. James Murray to serve as editor for what was to be the most ambitious dictionary in the history of the English language. It would include every English word possible and would give not only the definition but also the history of the word and quotations showing how it was used.
This was a huge task, so Dr. Murray recruited volunteers from Britain, the United States, and the British colonies to search every newspaper, magazine, and book ever written in English. Hundreds of volunteers responded, including William Chester Minor. Dr. Minor was an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War and was now living in England. He gave his address as “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire,” 50 miles from Oxford.
Minor joined the army of volunteers sending words and quotations to Murray. Over the next 17 years, he became one of the staff’s most valued contributors.
But he was also a mystery. Despite many invitations, he would always decline to visit Oxford. So in 1897, Murray finally decided to travel to Crowthorne himself. When he arrived, he found Minor locked in a book-lined cell at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
Murray and Minor became friends, sharing their love of words. Minor continued contributing to the dictionary, sending in more than 10,000 submissions in 20 years. Murray continued to visit Minor regularly, sometimes taking walks with him around the asylum grounds.
In 1910, Minor left Broadmoor for an asylum in his native America. Murray was at the pier to wave goodbye to his remarkable friend.
Minor died in 1920, seven years before the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was completed. The 12 volumes defined 414,825 words, and thousands of them were contributions from a very scholarly and dedicated asylum inmate.