Part of the story in how this major feat was accomplished is absolutely amazing. Oxford University hired James Murray, a Scottish teacher who never went to college and had left school when he was 14 because his parents needed his help at home. He was a self-taught genius who ended up running an academy at the age of 20. He knew how to speak and interpret many languages including Italian, French, Spanish, Latin, Portuguese, German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. I don’t believe there has been anyone in the world as accomplished as him in languages thus why Oxford wanted him. Keep in mind, he taught himself how to read and write these languages.
It was such a huge undertaking that Murray decided to solicit volunteers to help add words to the dictionary, provide the definitions of these words, and provide notations (back-up), then he and his team would verify the information. It was very difficult work and only the highly educated with time on their hands, were willing to volunteer for the project. They had mail coming in from volunteers all over England with words for them to review.
After a few years, Oxford University became concerned as to how slow things were progressing and considered putting someone else in Murray’s place. He convinced them to be patient and that he would work on finding ways to be more productive. Then one day his office received a package filled with words, definitions, and great notations. They were shocked as to how brilliant this person was, but they didn’t know him. The letter came from a Dr. William Chester at a mental hospital for the criminally insane. Dr. Chester began flooding Murray’s office with information for the dictionary, so the project took off and Oxford University was elated.
Murray decided to give Dr. Chester a surprise visit, so he showed up at the hospital and asked to see him. When they brought Dr. Chester to him, he was wearing shackles. Murray naturally thought that Dr. Chester worked there when instead he was an inmate/patient. He had chased a man through the streets and killed him thinking the man was an assassin who was after him. Back then they didn’t know much about the human mind but today’s experts state that Dr. Chester suffered from many illnesses including Paranoid/Schizophrenia.
Dr. Chester was from the United States and he was a surgeon who served in the Army. He was in one of the most brutal Civil War battles and suffered from extreme PTSD (of course that wasn’t diagnosed back then either). While still serving in the military after the war, his mental condition began deteriorating to a point where the Army sent him to an insane asylum. He was in the hospital for 18 months and when he was released, he moved to London in hopes that it would help his mental condition but instead he got worse. In all, he spent 38 years in mental institutions.
But what people didn’t realize is that he was a genius not unlike James Murray. He could do practically anything. He was a great artist. He absorbed books. The doctors and guards thought the world of him for many reasons including that he helped with patients and staff at times with his medical expertise. He could only do things like this when he was lucid. They thought so much of him that they tore down one of his cell walls so that he could have the space of two cells and then they put in a small libray and set up a place where he could paint.
James Murray visited him often and they became great friends. He was crushed to see Murray’s mental state deteriorate. Getting out of a hospital for the criminally insane, especially if someone commits murder, was pretty much impossible. In an extraordinary move, Murray petitioned Winston Churchill to allow Dr. Chester to go home to Connecticut to live out his final years. If it weren’t for the fact that Murray was famous for his works, it wouldn’t have happened, but Churchill said yes. Murray went to the hospital to coordinate his release, contacted Dr. Chester’s family to let them know he was coming, and paid for his travels.
Oxford, for obvious reasons, didn’t want to give Dr. Chester any published credit for being a major contributor to the dictionary but Murray demanded it, so Dr. Chester has now gone down in history for helping to create one of the greatest publications of all time.
Dr. Chester died in 1920 at the age of 85 while James Murray died in 1915 at the age of 78. Murray worked on the dictionary for 36 years all the way up until his death. These were two extraordinary men who deserve a great legacy thus why I’m writing about them in hopes that more people will know these historic figures who've received very little attention.