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A tortured soul finds redemption in words

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Winter


An 1863 graduate of the School of Medicine made his mark as a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary while incarcerated with schizophrenia.

Some alumni of the School of Medicine make groundbreaking medical discoveries. Some become leaders of medical institutions. William C. Minor, M.D. 1863, also left his mark: he developed schizophrenia, killed a man and became a brilliant linguistic scholar while in an asylum for the insane.

Minor graduated from Yale’s medical school, which at that time entailed two years’ study, as a qualified surgeon. After caring for wounded soldiers in the Civil War, Minor began to suffer from what would much later be defined as paranoid schizophrenia. In 1868 Minor was admitted to a government hospital for the insane in Washington, D.C., and released from the Army in 1870. During a stay in London that was intended to rest his mind, he shot and killed an innocent passerby while in the grip of delusional paranoia. The British courts judged him not guilty by reason of insanity in April 1872; he was then placed in Broadmoor, an asylum in Berkshire, England, where he began to correspond with the editors of the nascent Oxford English Dictionary. He soon became an invaluable contributor to that effort. The chief editor did not learn until years into their collaboration that the brilliant and hardworking Minor was a mentally ill prison-hospital inmate. Minor’s extraordinary life was the subject of Simon Winchester’s 1998 bestselling history, The Professor and the Madman, the principal contemporary source of information about Minor.

After graduating from Yale—his handwritten M.D. thesis concerned muscular contraction—Minor performed autopsies on soldiers at New Haven’s wartime Knight Hospital. A small book with his detailed and eloquent reports is still available at the Medical Historical Library along with his thesis. Post Mortem Examinations Made at Knight U. S. A. General Hospital reveals haunting glimpses of Minor’s time. Most of his autopsy subjects that year had fallen ill in the field with now-unusual lung ailments, including typhus, typhoid pneumonia, pleurisy and “phthisis,” or tuberculosis; but others had succumbed to the more familiar “alcoholismus acutus” or even to choking. Minor also published an article in an 1863 issue of Yale’s American Journal of Science and the Arts regarding the ability of certain worms to regenerate after being cut apart.

Years later his erudition and exactitude would serve him well in Broadmoor. In the early 1880s—perhaps nine or 10 years into his incarceration—Minor came across a pamphlet that would change his life. It had probably been placed in one of the many books brought to him by his victim’s widow (amazingly, the two had become friends). The pamphlet called for volunteers to compile what was then called A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Minor threw himself into the task, combing the rare books in his library, then mailing the editors vast numbers of quotations demonstrating the words’ meanings and early appearances in English literature. Though Minor was plagued by vivid hallucinations and delusions, the research suited him well and even seemed to serve as therapy. He worked at it with great success for some 20 years.

In his declining years, Minor was considered less dangerous, and his brother arranged his transfer in 1910 to the same hospital in Washington, D.C., where he had been kept 42 years earlier. It was there that he finally received the diagnosis of dementia praecox, an early term for schizophrenia. A year before his death from pneumonia at age 85, he was transferred, still delusional, to a home for the elderly in Hartford, Conn. Minor was buried in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery in March 1920. His obituary in the Yale press made no mention of his crime, stating instead that while in England “he was found to be mentally deranged … and [in Broadmoor] he remained … gradually recovering his mental balance, and devoting his time to scholarly pursuits.” Though Minor did not in fact recover his mental health, the fruits of his scholarship done in the throes of schizophrenia can be found throughout the Oxford English Dictionary, a basic reference work in libraries throughout the English-speaking world.