Tuesday, May 3, 2016

William Chester Minor: Dictionary Contributor, Surgeon and Mental Patient

William Chester Minor was a surgeon who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary. He was also severely mentally ill. He is remembered for the latter, but his contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary were significant, particularly given that he made those contributions from his room in an insane asylum.

William Chester Minor was born in June of 1834. He was born on the island that is currently Sri Lanka. He was one of two children that were born to a pair of Congregationalist Church Missionaries from New England. W.C.’s mother died of consumption when he was three years old. His father eventually remarried, a union which gave William at least one stepsibling–a brother. When he was fourteen years old, W.C.’s father sent him to New Haven, CT, where he moved in with his uncle and began attending Yale University.

William Chester Minor studied to be a surgeon at the prestigious school and graduated in 1863. He used his skill to become a surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War. It is sometimes thought that his experiences during the war contributed to his mental illness. Whether or not this is true is a matter of debate. However, the symptoms of his disease were first noticed shortly after the war had ended.

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, William Chester Minor was stationed in New York City. Apparently, he developed an affinity for prostitutes while there. The Army did not consider this appropriate behavior, so they transferred him to a post in Florida. His behavior became even stranger (or more obvious) when he got there. He suffered paranoid delusions of persecution from other members of the military. The year after his arrival at his new post, he was taken to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

It took the staff of the hospital roughly a year and a half to decide that William Chester Minor was not going to get better anytime soon. In 1871, he was allowed to leave the hospital and the military. He was given retirement pay. Soon after he was discharged, he made his way to London. William’s paranoid delusions became a big problem for him there. At one point, he made a complaint at Scotland Yard that someone was breaking into his room and attempting to poison him at night. His complaint was dismissed because W.C. was obviously a madman.

On February 17, 1872, Minor shot and killed a man named George Merrett. At the time of his death, George had six children and one on the way. He was on his way to work when William murdered him. William was arrested on the spot. He told the police that he had mistaken George for the man who had been entering his room at night. A jury found William not guilty by reason of insanity.

William Chester Minor was taken to the Broadmoor insane asylum on April 17, 1872. He was placed in a nice area of the hospital because he was not seen as dangerous. He was also given the privilege of purchasing books with his retirement pension. He took advantage of the privilege and built up a small library for himself. It was this small library that led to his work on the Oxford English Dictionary.

The makers of the Oxford English Dictionary sought volunteers to help them gather instances of word usages and the like for use in the famous dictionary. William Chester Minor somehow heard of this and volunteered. He meticulously collected word usages from his books and sent them into the editors of the dictionary. Quite a lot of what he collected was used in the making of the dictionary. Unfortunately, despite this productive spell, W.C.’s delusions continued. In fact, they grew ever more grandiose.

The delusions of nighttime attacks continued and they gradually became not only threatening, but sexual in nature. William Chester Minor began complaining that men were sneaking into his room at night and raping him. Sometimes more than one man was present during these imagined attacks. Eventually he began to include women and even children in his delusions. He was never the attacker or a willing participant in these acts. He always explained them as forced and unpleasant.

The delusions got the better of him in time, and on December 3, 1902, he cut off his penis. William Chester Minor’s horrific act of self-mutilation did not stop the paranoia that he suffered or the imagined nightly sexual attacks. At the age of 68 and lacking a penis, the man continued to believe that he was being sexually assaulted.

Eight years after the incident, Minor was given into the custody of his stepbrother so that he could be taken back to St. Elizabeth’s. The date was April 15, 1910. He stayed there for nine years and was diagnosed with schizophrenia during that time. He was moved to the Retreat for the Elderly Insane in New Haven, CT in 1919, so that he may be closer to his family in his old age. He died there on March 26, 1920.

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