William Chester Minor: The Most Talented Mental Patient In History Of Psychology

William Chester Minor: The Most Talented Mental Patient In History Of Psychology

We would say that William Chester Minor was the most talented mental patient in history, but also he was certainly one of the most prolific. William Chester Minor was born in the British colony of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called. His parents were American Congregationalist missionaries from New England and he seems to have had a happy and relatively normal childhood. As soon as he turned 14, he was sent ‘home’ to complete his education at New Haven’s Russell Military Academy. After graduation, he went on to study medicine at Yale.

When the US Civil War began, he was commissioned in the Union army and served as a battlefield surgeon. His experiences at the Battle of the Wilderness may have triggered his mental instability. Even by Civil War standards, it was a horrifyingly bloody affair and casualties were enormous.

Civil War dressing stations and field hospitals were sometimes little more than a wooden table and the back of a horse-drawn field ambulance.

A sensitive and courteous man, who painted and played the flute, Minor began to behave rather strangely. When the war ended he was given a posting in New York, where he began to display an almost obsessive interest in the city’s ‘ladies of the evening’. When the army got wind of his off-duty interests, he was first sent off to a remote posting in Florida but, when his behavior became increasingly unpredictable, he was eventually committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital, a ’lunatic asylum’ in Washington D.C.

After 18 months he showed no improvement and was released from the army on the grounds that he was “incapacitated by causes arising in the line of duty”. In 1871, hoping that a change in environment might ease his fears and growing paranoia, he moved to England where he settled in Lambeth, just across the river from Britain’s Parliament at Westminster.

Lambeth in the 19th century

It was not a pretty part of the city and the area in which Minor lived was particularly unlovely. Lambeth Marsh was the kind of vile and impoverished place Dickens must have had in mind when he wrote books like Oliver Twist and Little Dorritt. It was a place of tanneries and tenements, blacking factories, soap boilers, dyes, and lime burners. It was the noisiest and most sulfurous district of a city notorious for its squalor, din, and dirt.

Even night did not diminish the constant sound of the trains (including those of the London Necropolis Railway transporting corpses to the cemeteries of Woking) clattering over the Hungerford Bridge near Minor’s dingy rooming-house.

Even that wasn’t the worst of it. Because at the time, ‘the Marsh’ was technically considered to be part of Surrey rather than the city, the area attracted all manner of unsavory characters. Rookeries, brothels, and lewd theatres operated freely without fear of intervention from the ‘bobbies’ of London’s Metropolitan Police. Violence was not unknown.

Guns were, however. So when a young shift worker named George Merritt was shot down on his way to Lambeth’s Red Lion Brewery in the early morning hours of February 17, 1872, it was a media sensation.

Minor still had the pistol in his hand when police arrested him.

The killer, it turned out, was Dr. Minor. He still had the pistol in his hand when he was arrested. During his trial, it became obvious that he was quite mad; delusional, paranoid, and deeply troubled. He believed he was being pursued by unknown killers who tried to poison him. He did not trust the lower classes, he told the court, they had persecuted him for years.

Minor was found not guilty ‘by reason of insanity’ and detained ‘until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known’ at Britain’s newest asylum - Broadmoor in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire. It had opened in 1863, the first institution in Britain built exclusively to house ‘the criminally insane’.

Dr. William Chester Minor - in the garden at Broadmoor

It was, however, a prison rather than a hospital. Surrounded by high walls and iron gates, Broadmoor’s residents were treated not as patients, but lunatics and criminals.

Things, however, weren’t quite so bureaucratic that life inside couldn’t be made more comfortable for those with means. It was hardly the Chateau d’If, after all, and the facility’s governors could be quite ‘flexible’.

Courteous and well-educated, with a military bearing and a pension that gave him a modest but dependable income, he was considered a ‘gentleman’. Accordingly, ‘Inmate 742’ was duly ensconced in not one, but two rooms in the prison’s ‘swell block’. In the British sense of the word, it was reserved for the more genteel and fashionable of the prison’s guests, the ‘swells’. Under the prodding of the American Vice-Consul-General, Minor’s painting materials along with his clothes and his books were returned to him.

It was the books that Minor regarded as his most precious possession. Over time, he acquired so many that they filled one of his rooms to overflowing. It was probably through one of the booksellers he patronized that Dr. Minor learned of Dr. James Murray’s call for volunteers.

By then, Minor had spent more than 8 years at Broadmoor and, although he was quite cozy in his little ‘suite’, his mental health continued to decline. “There can be no doubt…” one of his doctors wrote, “that Dr. Minor, though calm and collected at times is abundantly insane, and shows himself to be more so than he was some years ago. He has the calm and firm conviction that he is almost nightly the victim of torment and purposive annoyance, on the parts of the Attendants and others connected with an infernal criminal scheme.”

James A.H. Murray, Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. He was entirely self-educated

James Murray was an amateur philologist and lexicographer who had been invited in 1878 to edit the new Oxford English Dictionary. It was to replace Dr. Johnson’s famous work and would “capture all the words then extant in the English speaking world in all their various shades of meaning.”

Murray was primarily interested in linguistics and etymology, but some idea of the depth and range of his erudition may be gained from a letter of application he wrote to the British Museum.

In it, he claimed 'intimate acquaintance' with Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish and Latin and 'to a lesser degree' Portuguese, Vaudois, Occitan and various other dialects. In addition, he was 'tolerably familiar' with Dutch, German and Danish. His studies of Anglo-Saxon and Mœso-Gothic had been 'much closer', he knew 'a little of the Celtic' and was at the time 'engaged with the Slavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian’. He had 'sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito’ and ‘to a lesser degree’, he knew Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician.

He didn’t get the job but the directors of Oxford University Press thought he was just the man for their dictionary project. It was a colossal undertaking, which demanded someone with Murray's knowledge and single-minded determination.

It was expected that the project would take ten years to complete and be some 7,000 pages long, in four volumes. In fact, when the First Edition was published in 1928, it ran to twelve volumes, with 414,825 words defined and 1,827,306 citations employed to illustrate their meanings.

The Second Edition of the OED ran to 20 volumes… the 1st edition, only 12

One of the earliest and most prolific contributors was Dr. William Chester Minor.

He started collecting quotations around 1880-1, and continued doing so for 20 years, working systematically through his library. Simon Winchester in his book 'The Surgeon of Crowthorne', says the work became the "defining feature" of Minor's life.

Minor certainly made an enormous contribution to the dictionary, and this did not go unnoticed. Murray said Minor's contributions were so great they "could easily have illustrated the last four centuries [of words] from his quotations alone". In one two-year period, he researched and supplied no less than 12,000 quotations.

Minor always signed his letters in the same way: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire. His identity remained a mystery to his unseen colleagues working on the project, and Murray and Minor did not meet for many years. When Minor failed to respond to an invitation to attend the ‘Great Dictionary Dinner’ in 1891, Murray decided to visit Minor himself, to find out who this mysterious man was. Arriving at the large Victorian mansion which was the administrative building at Broadmoor, Murray expected to find Minor a typical country gentleman. When shown into the study of the asylum’s director he naturally assumed him to be the elusive Doctor.

Only then did he learn Minor was an inmate of the asylum.

The story of Minor and Murray is told in Simon Winchester’s 1998 book, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” (released in North America as “The Madman and the Professor”).

The book was made into a motion picture starring Mel Gibson and Sean Penn released in 2019 under the title “The Madman and the Professor”
William Chester Minor: The Most Talented Mental Patient In History Of Psychology
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