The Professor and the Madman

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The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED, begun in 1857, was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Curriculet Details
42 Questions
42 Annotations
3 Quizzes

Designed for students in grades 11 and 12, this free digital curriculum contains annotations explaining style, literary devices and context. It also contains interactive videos that support comprehension, such as videos about foreshadowing and analogies. Over the course of the book, students will answer Common Core questions and quizzes related to the subjects of characterization, elements of non fiction, and narrative technique. This free online unit will increase student engagement while building reading comprehension.

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Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently. Are there any words on this page that you need to look up? 
The tone of the preface can be described as  

Chapter 1

Note that every chapter begins with the detailed Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of a word. Consider the significance of the words defined, and how they relate to the main themes of the chapter. 
What seems to be the most shocking aspect of this crime to contemporary Londoners? 
Here is an image of the Red Lion Brewery in Lambeth as it looked in the 1850s. Do you think this image conveys the level of vileness described here?  (This annotation contains an image)
How does the Merrett family contrast with their surroundings in Lambeth? 
The man apprehended for the shooting seems quite calm, even jesting with the constable. Do you believe that this is just a case of mistaken identity? That he simply shot the wrong man? 
All of the following describes William Minor, EXCEPT 
Bethlem Royal Hospital was opened in the 14th century, and had a horrible history. In the 18th century, people could even pay to gawk at the inmates!  (This annotation contains a video)
How does the author emphasize the impact of Minor's sentence?  Do you think he is overstating his point? 

Chapter 2

Now the OED is easily accessible as an online database.  (This annotation contains an image)
What literary device is this an example of? 
Where do you stand on the controversy? Can you think of any books that can be considered to have more than one protagonist?  (This annotation contains a video)
What is significant about Murray's education? 
James Murray, in his later years.  (This annotation contains an image)
How does the author's style and diction correlate to the subject and theme relating to the creation of the OED? 
The author says a lot about how Minor and Murray differ -- but can you think of what they might have in common? Pictured: Dr. William Minor, at leisure  (This annotation contains an image)

Chapter 3

In describing the allure of the young girls of Ceylon, the author relies mainly on what literary device? 
The author is using the narrative technique of backstory to aid in the development of Minor as a character. We know what Minor has done that landed him in an asylum for the criminally insane; now we will find out what happened in his past that possibly contributed to his madness.  (This annotation contains an image)
How might being a surgeon during a time of war contribute to Minor's fragile state of mind?  Do you think that Minor would have been properly prepared (technically and mentally) for the carnage he was sure to witness? 
The combination of post traumatic stress caused by his experiences in war and a "latent madness" proved to be an unfortunate mix for Minor. Finding accounts of Civil War veterans suffering from PTSD is a recent phenomenon -- read this brief article to find out why.  (This annotation contains a link)
What best describes the battle of the Wilderness? 
Consider what such a public branding could do to a person in civilian life, both privately and professionally. (This annotation contains an image)
What internal conflict makes Minor hesitate while branding the deserter? 
The Fenian Brotherhood was started in New York and Dublin in the late 1850s. Their goal was to establish a Republic of Ireland, free of British rule. This struggle would continue well into the next century. Why might branded men be turned away by these revolutionaries?  (This annotation contains a link)
Why do you think the author includes information about Minor's dealings with the Irish?  What is he attempting to explain? 
Can you speculate as to what Minor was obsessed with? What do you know about Minor's condition so far that might give you some clue? 
Why do you think the U.S. Army agrees to continue supporting Minor? 
Quiz 1 

Chapter 4

Guy Fawkes Day used to be a popular holiday in England, but has since been scaled down in favor of Halloween celebrations. How does this date relate to the events of the story, or contribute to its tone?  (This annotation contains a link)
What literary device is used in this description of the philologists? 
A malapropism is the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with unintentionally amusing effect. This could also be an allusion to to a character in Sheridan's 1775 comedy of manners play, 'The Rivals.' In the play, Mrs. Malaprop's distinguishing characteristic is her inadvertent use of malapropisms, which render her ridiculous! 
Summarize the purpose and scope of the monolingual dictionaries that have been published up to this point. 
That is quite the title! Take a look at some other interesting titles of 18th century books here - some are long, all are pretty ridiculous. (This annotation contains a link)
How does the author describe the English language as it is captured in Johnson's dictionary? 
Consider why Samuel Johnson was not interested in preserving the "purity" of language. Is it even possible for language to be pure? 
What mars the authenticity of Johnson's dictionary? 
As the author stated, many criticized Johnson for letting his personality come through in the dictionary. This is called authorial intrusion. 

Chapter 5

What were these dictionaries unable to achieve? 
How is Trench's philosophy regarding the purpose of the dictionary similar to Johnson's? Pictured: Dr. Richard Trench  (This annotation contains an image)
What does the fact that the concept of large collaboration on this project was so shocking reveal about society at the time? 
This is an example of an analogy, a comparison between two things, typically on the basis of their structure and for the purpose of explanation or clarification. In this short clip from the tv show 'Community,' Britta attempts to explain what an analogy is using an analogy.  (This annotation contains a video)
At this point, what is standing in the way of Murray's vision of the dictionary? 
Today, we would call this 'crowdsourcing.' Merriam-Webster defines crowdsourcing as the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers (first known use in 2006). Murray and co. did not have the convenience of the Internet to organize their efforts.  (This annotation contains an image)

Chapter 6

What word best describes the appearance and atmosphere of the Broadmoor Asylum? 
Here is an aerial view of Broadmoor Hospital as it looks today.  (This annotation contains an image)
What is the effect of the author describing the current inmate in Minor's former rooms?  Why do you think he includes this bit of information? 
What do you think of Minor's experiences at the asylum? He is clearly mad (and getting worse) and belongs in the asylum, but how are his experiences different from the other inmates?  
According to Murray's appeal all of the following types of books need to be read for the project by English volunteers EXCEPT 
Somewhere in the middle of the massive OED project, around 1911, it was decided that a more compact version of the dictionary was necessary. So, Oxford publishers printed their first concise dictionary.  (This annotation contains a link)

Chapter 7

According to the author, what does Minor gain from his work on the dictionary? 
In this picture, you can see the first definition of the term 'catchword' (as it is given at the beginning of the chapter) in action.  (This annotation contains an image)
How does this illustrate the pitfalls of using volunteers for such intricate work?  Who do you sympathize with more in their frustration, Murray or the volunteers? 
Language is a very fluid thing. If one were to include modern 21st century slang (or Tumblr-speak), one could now include the occurrence of the NOUN "feels."  (This annotation contains an image)
What term best describes how Minor approached his work on indexing? 
Quiz 2 

Chapter 8

What do you imagine makes Minor's handwriting "distinctly American"? Also, what is the effect of the author's description of the paper as being "snow white"? 
Here is a picture of Murray in the Scriptorium.  (This annotation contains an image)
What literary device is used in the highlighted sentence? 
This is an allusion to the character in Charles Dickens's 'David Copperfield.' He was an unsavory character, now synonymous with being a cloying "yes man." 
Which of the following statements about Minor's work on the dictionary is accurate? 
While it would have been difficult to achieve based on the number of volunteers, a vetting process probably should have been conducted before accepting the work of strangers. Consider how the credibility of all of the work they have been doing can be called into question, when it is found out that so much of it has been compiled by a madman. 

Chapter 9

Describe the atmosphere of this dinner. How does it compare or contrast with the conditions in which these scholars work on a daily basis? 
As a reader of non-fiction, you should be aware of when there is documented evidence (such as the printed letter here), or when information should be considered apocryphal (of doubtful authenticity).  
Murray's interaction with the Broadmoor attendant here is illustrative of what narrative technique? 
The sinking of the Lusitania stirred patriotic fervor; even people in the U.S., which was staunchly isolationist at the time, were calling for retaliation. (This annotation contains an image)
The first meeting between Murray and Minor as it has been popularly told is actually 
Victorian depiction of Father Christmas  (This annotation contains an image)
Does the reality of the meeting of Minor and Murray, and their ensuing relationship. meet your expectations of what would happen? How so? 
The author's voice is clear in this little aside about this ironic homophone. Do you find authorial intrusions like this distracting? Or do you think this informal stylistic choice makes the story more relatable? 
In light of the earlier discussion of protagonists, can you identify who the antagonist is in this section of the story? 
This is clearly foreshadowing. What do you think this 'crisis' will be?  (This annotation contains a video)

Chapter 10

What is one theory that possibly explains why Minor castrated himself? 
Do you remember that the author mentioned earlier that Minor was allowed to keep a pen knife so that he could cut pages in his books? Now we know why he included that information. This is a form of foreshadowing referred to as Chekov's gun. Playwright Anton Chekov once said, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there."  
All reasoning as to why Minor did what he did is speculation.  Do you believe one theory more than the other?  Do you have your own theory? 
Mary of Teck as a young woman  (This annotation contains an image)
What does Minor's leaving for America represent? 
While Minor going back to the U.S. is a good thing, this is not an uplifting or hopeful journey. Essentially, Minor is going home to die, and so the imagery reflects that. 

Chapter 11

What is coming to an end, and how do Murray and Furnivall feel about these endings? 
This very disturbing image has roots in Greek mythology. It has since become a common horror trope. 
Which of the following statements is true (at the time) of the mental illness that Minor suffered from? 
PTSD has been suffered by soldiers as long as there has been warfare, but it has only been relatively recently recognized by the psychiatric community. Think about why that might be as you read this brief article on the history of PTSD in combat soldiers.  (This annotation contains a link)
How has the content and manner of his letters changed since his correspondence with his friend Murray?  How do you view Minor now? 
This is interesting phrasing. Why would the cemetery need to be protected from the "angry part of New Haven?" 
What literary device is used here to describe the importance of the OED? 


Throughout the book, the author has shown admiration of Dr. Minor and his scholarly efforts on the OED. Just a few pages ago, the author (somewhat contritely) pondered how fortuitous it was that Minor should have been afflicted with this illness and institutionalized so that he could devote so much time and energy to the project. In his postscript, he reminds the reader that Minor was a murderer, and that his victim, George Merrett, should not be forgotten. 
Quiz 3